All Dressed Up for School

IN Long Beach, Calif., crime in the public schools is down 36 percent from two years ago. Suspensions have dropped 32 percent. Problems with drugs, gangs, and racial tension have improved.

How did it happen? Long Beach became the first public school district in the country to require most students to wear uniforms.

Certainly, navy pants, plaid skirts, and white shirts won't solve all the problems schools face. But they can help "level the playing field" between those who can afford to wear the trendiest and most expensive clothing and those who can't. Uniforms enable students to pay more attention to what they're studying and less to what they - and others - are wearing. Most urgently, uniforms help curb gang tension by eliminating gang-affiliated colors and styles.

Of course, there can be other problems when it comes to public schools telling young people what to wear. Many schools have gotten around the most serious stumbling block - potential legal challenges that question the constitutionality of mandated dress - by choosing optional plans. Yet, if students are given a choice, and many would rather not wear uniforms, where does that leave schools and their uniform policies?

California has come up with one viable answer: The state allows schools to mandate uniforms as long as parents can transfer their children to a school where uniforms aren't required or sign an exemption form.

There is also a question of cost. To many parents, uniforms are a less-expensive alternative to shopping at specialty and department stores. But others, including a group suing the Long Beach school system, say poor families aren't getting adequate help in paying for the uniforms.

The suit has spurred the district to seek financing through community service groups, businesses, and individuals. Scholarship funds to help low-income families is another option.

Critics of school uniforms say young people already have enough restrictions put on them without adding another. But forgoing personal style seven hours a day is a small price to pay for safer hallways, fewer drugs, less racial tension, and an overall better learning environment.

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