To many parents and school officials, the logic behind school uniforms seems obvious: Without the distraction of fashion, students can focus their creativity and competitiveness on classwork.
But as more public schools in the Washington area and across the country have adopted uniforms, the results have been anything but consistent.
Some educators report that uniforms have helped improve student behavior and self-esteem while curbing gang affiliations; others argue that the policies lull administrators and parents into believing they can be a quick fix to more complicated social problems.
And though no research has proven conclusively the effectiveness of standardizing students' dress, that hasn't dissuaded schools from requiring or encouraging uniforms--usually white tops and dark or khaki bottoms.
In the District, where about half the public schools have voluntary programs, two council members last week proposed a policy that would require all students to wear uniforms. In Montgomery, three schools adopted voluntary policies for the first time this year, and in Fairfax and Prince William counties, more than two dozen schools have them. In Prince George's, 11 public schools have adopted mandatory uniform policies in the past three years, and 21 have voluntary programs.
Robyn Zgorski, principal at Fort Foote Elementary in Fort Washington, raves about improvement in discipline she has seen since the school adopted a mandatory uniform policy three years ago.
"You can see huge results there," Zgorski said, citing a decline in disciplinary referrals to her office from 106 in the 1996-97 school year to 51 last year. The policy "really sets a tone throughout the school. We now have a very academic and focused environment."
Before uniforms, Zgorski said, children would come to her office every week in tears after being teased about their clothing by other students, and parents occasionally would call her in anger because their child's expensive, brand-name jacket had been stolen.
Last week, D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) co-sponsored legislation calling for mandatory uniforms in District schools.
"We need to do this," said Schwartz, who unsuccessfully proposed such a policy when she was a D.C. school board member in the 1970s. "It takes a lot of pressure off young people to be fashion plates, and it takes a lot of pressure off parents, who are expected to finance these fashion shows that go on in the schools."
The American Civil Liberties Union said it may contest a mandatory uniform policy as a violation of students' First Amendment rights, though such policies have withstood court challenges in other jurisdictions. And some parents say a mandatory uniform policy limits students' rights to free expression.
"Are you going to mandate uniform haircuts, too . . . and uniform glasses?" wondered Paul Levy, father of two children in the District's public schools. "I think it's absurd. I understand the problems they are trying to get at . . . [but] it seems to me you have to find another way to control it."
Uniform supporters often cite a study from Long Beach, Calif., where school officials reported a 36 percent reduction in school crime and 50 percent reduction in fighting after a uniform policy was implemented.
Others note that uniforms were part of a much wider-ranging school improvement effort there, including a character education program that focuses on peaceful problem-solving and encourages responsibility, honesty and teamwork among students.
Schools that implement uniform policies without other reform measures run the risk of believing they've solved problems, only to realize later that they have not, some say.
A 1991 study conducted in District schools that had voluntary uniform policies concluded that although parents said they were a positive influence in the schools, "student performance and attendance data have not changed, overall, in a positive way."
"If you want to improve the schools and discipline and academics," said Marc Posner, a senior research associate at the Education Development Center, a nonprofit organization in Newton, Mass., "you have to be willing to give the schools . . . things like smaller classes, teacher aides, good principals, parent involvement, computers, textbooks, tutoring."
Carleton Moyer, principal at Minnieville Elementary in Prince William, said that although about 65 percent of the students wore uniforms last school year at the start of voluntary program, only 30 percent are doing so this year. He said that uniforms can work only when they are part of a larger effort.
"Uniforms are not the answer," he said. "They are a piece of the puzzle."
CAPTION: Fort Foote Elementary School students circled their school to start a year without violence.
CAPTION: Robyn Zgorski, Fort Foote Elementary principal, directs her students. The students sang songs and held hands to kick off a nonviolent year.