- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 25, 2001

The growing movement toward public-school uniforms has scored an important victory with a federal appeals court ruling that allows school boards to require uniforms if educators believe they improve discipline and learning.
"It is not the job of federal courts to determine the most effective way to educate our nation's youth," the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in rebuffing claims by 39 parents that the policy did not reduce disciplinary problems or increase test scores, as the school board has contended.
The New Orleans-based court rejected arguments that uniforms do not improve the teaching environment, are too expensive, stifle expression, and violate religious rights.
The 3-0 decision Tuesday approved a countywide 34-school program in the northwest Louisiana county of Bossier Parish, where 18,600 students from kindergarten through high school must wear white golf shirts or button-down dress shirts with slacks, skirts, walking shorts or "skorts." Schools may choose navy blue or khaki for the pants and skirts and are permitted to allow a shirt with the school color.
"It's been a long fight," school Superintendent Kenneth N. Kruithot said in an interview yesterday, pleased at the support for a mandatory policy with no provision to opt out. "We're pleased they saw our point and that we want to provide the best environment for youngsters to get an education."
"Before we did this, we had all kinds of problems, fights and kids that were stealing other kids blue jeans, for instance. We've not had that since. There seems to be a different demeanor, a calmness, for kids in uniform and they start their day without a confrontation at home about what they want to wear," Mr. Kruithot said.
"We're not going to roll over and play dead," said lead plaintiff Diana Canady, a computer programmer and mother of three teen-agers who she says have been excellent scholars without the benefit of uniforms.
"It's forcing mass conformity on these children and teaching them that's a good thing, and I don't think it is," Mrs. Canady said yesterday, complaining that some schools go far beyond the rules and govern the color of socks, hairbands and belts.
Unlike the Louisiana system, high schools are usually not included in school-uniform policies.
Edwin Darden, senior staff attorney for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va., was excited that the court stated so strongly the role for school boards.
"This is consistent with how courts have looked at school boards' power on other questions to make sure the education environment is sound. It's the natural next step," Mr. Darden said.
One passage in particular made a point of great interest to educators:
"School boards, not federal courts, have the authority to decide what constitutes appropriate behavior and dress in public schools," the federal panel said.
"Uniforms are gaining some favor among public schools, particularly in light of all that has happened in the last several years, such as the shootings at Columbine, bomb threats, controversy over zero-tolerance policies," Mr. Darden said. "School officials ask, 'What else can we do to make sure children are orderly and safe?' "
The ruling marks the highest court action on an issue that until now generally has been resolved by making a program voluntary or allowing exceptions. In 1995, a Maricopa County judge upheld a one-school program in Phoenix.
The American Civil Liberties Union has warned it may sue when Philadelphia implements countywide uniform requirement this fall. In 1996, the ACLU settled a lawsuit out of court with Long Beach, Calif., the district credited for originating the public-school uniform trend. That settlement allows parents to opt out of the uniform policy.
"Once you have an opt-out provisions, and it's enforced, it takes away the coercion, and there's not much of a legal leg to stand on," ACLU Foundation President Nadine Strossen said at the time.
A recent survey by the Education Commission on the States shows two dozen states have laws allowing local school boards to encourage or require the wearing of uniforms at public schools.
A significant percentage of schools in Miami, Chicago and New York have policies on uniforms, but they vary from one school to the next within the same school district.
As of 1997, federal statistics show 3 percent of public schools used uniforms. They were found more often at schools where more than 75 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, or with minority enrollments higher than 50 percent.
Many programs provide new or donated used uniforms to children who can't afford them, and make exceptions when uniforms conflict with religious beliefs.
The federal appeals court yesterday said cost is not much of a factor because the uniforms used in the Louisiana program cost no more than other suitable school clothes. It said the parents who brought the case had no standing to raise a religious objection.
It was not known if an appeal is planned, but the Supreme Court generally does not agree to review such an outcome until another federal circuit rules differently on similar facts and law.
"The school board's purpose for enacting the uniform policy is to increase test scores and reduce disciplinary problems throughout the school system. This purpose is in no way related to the suppression of student speech," said the opinion written by Circuit Judge Robert M. Parker, a 1994 Clinton appointee.
Joining in the decision were Circuit Judge John M. Duhe Jr., a Reagan appointee, and District Judge David Folsom, also a Clinton appointee.


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