Greater Greater Education

School uniforms don't have to cost so much

Wearing a uniform was once the mark of private school attendance. Now public and charter school students are suiting up as well. But do the uniforms have to be so expensive?

Photo by the author.

About 3 out of 4 DCPS schools now require uniforms, according to a DCPS spokesperson. Although there are currently no statistics available for charter schools, it's clear that many if not most of them have their students wearing uniforms as well.

The benefits of such policies are well-documented. A study of urban high schools in Ohio found that while uniforms didn't directly affect academic performance, they had a positive impact on attendance, graduation rates, and rates of suspension. Long Beach, California reported a dramatic increase in school safety after implementing a uniform policy in all K-8 schools. As a teacher, I also observed some positive effects of having students wear uniforms, such as fewer distractions in the classroom and a shift in student focus away from physical appearance.

Now, as a parent, I'm seeing the issue from a different angle. The problem for parents comes down to the cost of uniforms, and in some cases, the effort of procuring them. My son's private school requires students to purchase polo shirts with the school logo at a cost of $18.50 apiece, with an additional charge of $9.50 for shipping. A friend had a similar experience when her children attended Community Academy, a public charter school. Shirts plus pants plus shoes add up quickly, so I was not surprised to find that the average cost of school uniforms for parents is $249.

The DCPS schools requiring uniforms that I have encountered generally have a more flexible policy than my son's school or Community Academy. They dictate a specific color or two of polo shirt for students to wear, along with khaki bottoms.

This approach allows parents to shop around for affordable options. And according to DCPS regulations, students who do not wear a uniform because they can't afford one are not subject to disciplinary action. DCPS schools are also required to establish a mechanism for providing aid to students who cannot afford the uniform.

Some DC charter schools, like KIPP DC and Mundo Verde, have an even easier, more affordable uniform strategy. While these charters expect parents to independently provide pants, shorts, or skirts for their children, the schools contract for custom t-shirts that parents can purchase directly from the school at a low cost. KIPP gives its students one shirt as a gift at orientation. By providing the shirts directly, schools are also able to assist low-income families without extra steps like vouchers or reimbursement.

Parents, have you had any positive or negative school uniform experiences, either in DCPS or at a charter school? Leave us a comment and tell us about them.

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Lisa Runge was born in Illinois, but after 6+ years in DC, she considers herself a Washingtonian. She made the circuit of DC schools as an elementary school teacher (public, parochial, charter, private) before settling into her current career of full-time mom of two and wife of one. She lives in Eckington. She blogs at DiaryofaNearlyNewMom.com 

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At Ross ES, there was an annual end-of-school hand-me-down event where parents could donate outgrown uniforms other parents could pick them up for free. This seems like a great model to emulate at other schools. And it seems to me that if the school could notify incoming parents, they might be able to obtain a substantial chunk of their uniform before they go shopping.

by Brad on Sep 25, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

Huh. I thought this was a pretty much settled non-issue for DCPS (and applicable charters I assume). We've been in DCPS for 7 years with our oldest, and haven't found the cost of uniforms to be any worse than the cost of comparable clothes. In fact, they're generally much cheaper. Our school does raise money by selling clothes with the school logo, but that's understood to be a completely voluntary thing.

Personally, I'd be pretty annoyed that I was paying $9.50 in shipping for a shirt, but I'd take that up with the school directly. There's got to be a more cost-effective way of doing that, but it sounds like a pretty isolated instance. It's certainly not the case with us.

Bottom line: I have to buy my kids clothes anyway. This is slightly cheaper and considerably less hassle. I'd support it even if there weren't the well documented benefits highlighted in the article.

by Tim Krepp on Sep 25, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

No they don't have to cost soooo much but it is the schools that want to have this particular swag. So, many will want identifying logos and colors that are uniquely their own. Yes, if you want the plain polo and khaki look it is the common look but now you must have the "crest" of the mascot. The name of the school blazon across the breast pocket. Then choice of short sleeve, long sleeve, colors, pull-over, button-up or short. Why hell, the average student has more options than the average schools' football teams; home uniform or away uniform, that's it. Many of the stores are aware of the monopoly they have in regards to supplying the uniforms...so we are at the mercy of supply and demand.

by BooBoo the Fool on Sep 25, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

In addition, I know for a fact that at Woodson High in northeast, they solicited their Alumni Association to sponsor uniforms for the least fortunate. It was an overwhelming succes and their inventory of uniform items is pretty lucrative. I understand at Eastern they have "trade-in" remedy where upper-classmen can trade in uniform items for free items.

One thing that is glaringly missing from the entire scheme of things when it comes to the uniform process. That it is to be voted on each and every year by the parent body, if the uniform policy stays into place. Also, it is not the school-personnel who chooses the items but it is in conjunction with parents and students. So, when I see a school that has each grade level wearing something different, that's such a waste of money. Merely because they all wear the same thing at graduation which is a school issued cap, gown and tassel.

by BooBoo the Fool on Sep 25, 2013 3:38 pm • linkreport

My daughters are in Prince George's County Public Schools and we have uniforms, but it's like the DCPS policy where colors and styles are specified, but you're not required to purchase a specific shirt with a logo or anything. It's been helpful in keeping down arguments about what clothes are appropriate for school, and in speeding up the morning getting dressed routine. The school and PTA also do as Brad noted, holding a uniform sale/swap once or twice a year.

by T. Carter Ross on Sep 25, 2013 4:50 pm • linkreport

I disagree sharply with the statement that "The benefits of such policies are well-documented." There is at least one rather successful DC Charter, Yu Ying, that does not have uniforms. The decision not to have uniforms was deliberate and considered, and I think it empirically demonstrates that uniforms are not necessary for academic success. Due to the ubiquity of school uniforms in urban settings, the issue does come up amongst new parents from time to time, and below is an unofficial summary of the decision-making process that has been frequently reposted to the parent listserv.
When the founders were writing the charter for the school, a commitment was made to only implement procedures and policies that were evidence-based through research. One issue that was investigated was the issue of uniforms, because of their widespread use in urban schools. The research results were interesting, and are summarized below:

Public PERCEPTION about the desirability of uniforms has always included the following rationales:

  1. uniforms reduce perceptions of economic disparity amongst students--in other words, school staff and peers would have a harder time knowing who was "rich" and who was "poor"
  2. uniforms reduce clothing expenses for families
  3. uniforms reduce discipline referrals and increase "good" behavior at school
  4. community perceptions of schools whose students wore uniforms was positive--in other words, outsiders perceived the school to be a better school because its students wore uniforms...
Approximately 25 separate studies yielded the following information:
  1. even with uniforms, students and staff were able to determine with better than 95% accuracy, individual students' socio economic status.
  2. there was no evidence that uniform use reduced clothing expenses for families--spending remained within approximately the same amount for the majority of families
  3. uniforms actually INCREASED the amount of discipline referrals and conflict with families: mainly over violations of the uniform policies themselves. Yet the irony was, if schools didn't vigorously enforce the uniform code, then the practice was criticized for being inadequately supported
  4. in urban areas, PUBLIC school students (as opposed to private school students) who wore uniforms were PERCEIVED by the community to attend schools that had more discipline issues, lower academic achievement and standards, and parents who were less affluent than average.
It was also noted by the research that:
  1.  It is extremely rare to see uniforms in high performing suburban schools.
  2. uniforms were first suggested by policy-makers (as opposed to educators or researchers) as a way to instill discipline in failing urban schools during the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980's. There is no evidence that this approach raised achievement or reduced school violence.
  3. uniforms have been compared to the current practice of single-sex education in public schools: implemented without an evidence base, and subject to lawsuits by parents who object.
  4. some schools have attempted to bridge the gap by offering an non-mandatory uniform policy: in other words, a uniform is adopted, but compliance with it is strictly voluntary.

by thm on Sep 26, 2013 10:23 am • linkreport

Students still wear expensive tennis-shoes, coats, jackets, jewelry, purses, phones, ipods, tattoos and other items. So, what this was to halt only gave an avenue for other things to have irrelevant value and attention.

by BooBoo the Fool on Sep 26, 2013 10:38 am • linkreport

At Community Academy, we don't require that uniform shirts be purchased from a particular vendor. Uniform shirts can be purchased from any of the major clothing stores. We do require all of our students to wear red polo style shirts and plain khaki bottoms. The majority of our parents pay $5-$10 for these shirts at Target, Walmart, K-Mart, Old Navy, etc. We do require that the CAPCS logo be added to these shirts. We use a local vendor who charges $5 for the logo. So depending on a parents shopping preferences, the required cost to parents for a CAPCS uniform is $10-$15. Even if a child needs 10 shirts to make it through the year, this is a far cry from the $249 annual cost cited on this blog.

For years Community Academy has held hand-me-down drives for uniform exchange and we have historically given free uniforms to ALL of our families in transition (homeless).

At CAPCS, each of our campuses employ school social workers, parent coordinators and student support service personnel. Any family that is in need of help with uniforms or any other school related materials are referred for service or encouraged to ask for assistance. We take great care in making sure our students AND staff members show up in our classrooms everyday representing their affiliation to Community Academy Public Charter School through our school uniform.

by For the record...#CAPCS on Sep 26, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

@For the record...#CAPCS

I think you're forgetting the cost of pants as well as the need for shirts that match the weather. I think the estimate of 10 shirts is really the minimum needed, as this prevents needing to do laundry during the school week (5 short sleeve and 5 long sleeve). Let's also not forget replacements for shirts that may become stained or pants that rip as the khaki ones so often do. These are kids we're talking about.

As for CAPCS's hand-me-down program, it seems that CAPCS has found a wonderful way to reduce uniform costs, but maybe it needs to be more widely promoted.

That said, the CAPCS website seems to portray a very different method of obtaining uniforms through Risse Brothers or Land's End. The prices at Risse Brothers seem to range between $15 and $30 per item without the logo.

Down at the bottom of the CAPCS's website uniform section is the single sentence: "You also may purchase clothing items yourself and have the CAPCS logo embroidered on the tops by G-Land, 1516 Wisconsin Ave., NW." Nary a mention is made of the hand-me-down event or that families who are struggling to obtain uniforms should ask the school for help.

by Jessica Christy on Sep 27, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

I find the blog at Uniform Mom to be very helpful; lists sales, reviews products...

http://www.uniformmom.com/

by EMM on Sep 27, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

Jessica C.

I wasn't forgetting the cost of pants, I was merely saying that uniform school or not your child will need to have pants, socks, shoes, etc. :) As a parent of 3 boys, I have found that the cost of school uniform khakis are much less expensive than the jeans or cargos that they would want to wear if they weren't attending a uniform school. Wear and tear, replacement items and your laundry schedule are also issues that are not exclusive to the use of school uniforms.

Mostly all of our promotion of the hand me down and assistance programs are done at the school level (PTO sponsored events, outcomes of student support meetings, etc.), so that's why they may not be publicized as much on the main webpage. I do agree that we can give a better perception of our uniform options on the website though. As well as promote our options for uniform assistance more. I just sent that up to the webmaster. We do have a contract with Risse Brothers for parents who can afford/prefer that option, but I see your point about the amount of "ink" we dedicate to the less expensive options. Thanks!

by For the Record...#CAPCS on Sep 27, 2013 12:06 pm • linkreport

Anyone with fabric allergies isn't gonna be happy with uniforms.

And since there is *no evidence that uniforms are good for anything*... why require them?

by Nathanael on Sep 30, 2013 1:57 am • linkreport

I suppose those students who have fabric allergies go to school nude since as has been noted there are no alternatives.

by selxic on Sep 30, 2013 6:49 am • linkreport

School uniforms cost parents and the young adults about the same amount of money. this is because then the kids or young adults will want any and every color of the polo shirts. Khakis are also expensive and get dirty very easily. Everyone also expresses themselves through the way they dress. So after all school uniforms should be out of the picture.

by Brianna on Oct 28, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

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