Why Are School Uniforms So Popular?

Getty Images / Klaus Vedfelt

According to the website Statistic Brain, citing data from the U.S. Department of Education and other sources, 23 percent of all public and private schools have a uniform policy. The school uniform business is now worth $1.3 billion a year, and parents pay an average of $249 a year to outfit one child in a uniform. Clearly, school uniforms are a burgeoning practice in public and private schools—but where did the recent popularity of school uniforms start?

How Many Schools Use Uniforms Today?

Today, New Orleans is the school district with the highest percentage of kids in uniform, at 95 percent, with Cleveland close behind at 85 percent and Chicago at 80 percent. In addition, many schools in cities such as New York City, Boston, Houston, Philadelphia, and Miami also require uniforms. The percentage of students in public schools who are required to wear uniforms has skyrocketed from less than 1 percent before the 1994-1995 school year to about 23 percent today. In general, school uniforms tend to be conservative in nature, and proponents of uniforms claim that they reduce social and economic distinctions among students and make it easier—and less expensive—for parents to dress their kids for school.

The Debate over School Uniforms

However, the debate over school uniforms continues unabated, even as school uniforms grow in popularity in public schools and continue to be in practice in many parochial and independent schools. Critics cite the lack of creativity that uniforms afford, and a 1998 article in the Journal of Educational Research cited research that found that school uniforms had no effect on substance abuse, problems with behavior, or attendance. In fact, the study found that uniforms had a negative effect on academic achievement. The study followed students who were eighth grade in public and private schools through college. The researchers found that wearing school uniforms was not significantly correlated with variables that indicated academic commitment, including a reduction in drug use, improved behavior in school, and reduced absences.

Some interesting stats from the recent 2017 survey conducted by StatisticBrain.com reveals both positive and negative feedback, which sometimes conflicts between teachers and parents. In general, teachers report an extremely positive outcome when students are required to wear school uniforms, including a sense of security, school pride and sense of community, positive student behavior, fewer disruptions and distractions and an improved learning environment. While some parents report that uniforms eliminate students' abilities to express themselves as individuals and inhibits creativity, teachers don't agree. Nearly 50% of parents agree that school uniforms have been financially beneficial, even if they don't love the idea.

The Start of Public School Uniforms in Long Beach, CA

Long Beach, California was the first large public school system in the nation to start requiring the over 50,000 students in its system to wear uniforms in 1994. According to the Long Beach United School District fact sheet, the uniforms, which consist of navy blue or black shorts, pants, shorts, or jumpers and white shirts, enjoy about 90 percent parental support. The school district offers financial aid through private organizations for families who cannot afford the uniforms, and parents report that three uniforms cost about $65-$75 per year, approximately as expensive as one pair of designer jeans. In short, most parents believe outfitting their children in uniforms costs less than buying them other clothes.

Uniforms in Long Beach were also believed to be a critical factor in improving students' behavior. According to a 1999 article in Psychology Today, uniforms in Long Beach were credited with decreasing crime in the school district by 91 percent. The article reported research that suggested that suspensions had declined by 90 percent in the five years since the uniforms had been instituted, sex offenses were down by 96 percent, and vandalism was reduced by 69 percent. Experts believed the uniforms created a sense of community that increased students’ sense of belonging and reduced tensions in the school.

Since Long Beach instituted a school uniform policy in 1994, President Clinton asked the Department of Education to advise all public schools on how they could institute a school uniform policy, and in recent years, school uniforms have become, well, more and more uniform. And with the school uniform business now worth over $1.3 billion a year, it seems like uniforms may continue to become more of the rule than the exception in public and some private schools in the years to come.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski