Tuesday, August 13, 1996
Can school uniforms cure what ails us?

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

My idea of being well-dressed is when my clothes are clean and don't smell of moth balls. Now that I have a grandchild, I have raised my standards just slightly. I absolutely insist that there not be any baby barf on my shoulder.

Unlike some of my friends, I do not worship at the altar of Donna Karan. Hemline debates do not excite me, and I do not believe a woman should be shot if she wears white after Labor Day.

Clothing, if you ask me, is just something Eve came up with to hide stretch marks. Or maybe it's something the serpent came up with to test us.

Rebel in a plaid jumper

The Cincinnati school board's Lynwood Battle would like to see uniforms on the kids in public schools. Nothing fancy, just maybe a regulation white shirt and dark pants or skirt. You'd think he was trying to put kids in straitjackets. Or make them wear bell-bottoms or beanies with propellers.

''Uniforms will make the children miserable,'' a woman complained in a letter to The Enquirer. ''As a result, they will not do well in school, and they'll look for other ways to express their personal self.''

Hey, maybe they'll express themselves by writing a poem or painting a picture.

How creative do you have to be to wheedle a $150 pair of athletic shoes from indulgent parents? Children compelled to wear white shirts and navy skirts to school do not automatically turn to tattoos and body piercing. Otherwise, parochial school campuses would look like Short Vine Street. And they don't.

Ten of the 79 Cincinnati public schools had uniform policies last year, but the district is still struggling to come up with rules that work for everybody. ''I'm making the rounds to parent groups, because, after all, they have to buy the uniforms,'' Mr. Battle said.

A recent poll of about 750 parents by the University of Cincinnati found that 78 percent of them support a uniform policy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. My theory is that the other 12 percent were parents who have stock in Reebok.

Although no scientific surveys have been done on the results of school uniforms, some supporters say they'll reduce fights, promote writing skills and improve math scores. That seems like a lot to ask of a plaid jumper or a pair of navy pants. But at the very least, a uniform does not act as a giant sandwich board proclaiming, ''I am poor.''

Stifling free expression

Last week, uniforms were discussed at a public meeting attended by about 80 people. (There'll be another one in early September.) Rockdale Principal Louise Stevenson, whose school has a voluntary uniform policy, says it's working there.

Even the staff often joins the kids in wearing blue and white, she said. ''In my school, which is in Avondale, there have been many fights over shoes, and many kids have had their clothing taken from them,'' Ms. Stevenson said.

A woman from Evanston called the idea of unforms a ''quick fix'' and said it would diminish free expression among students. Pardon me, but the biggest problem facing school children today is not lack of free expression.

And, if I may say so again, it's just clothes. No. Big. Deal.

Of course, when I notice smugly how unimportant clothing is to me, I probably also have to notice that I'm not worried about whether or not I have what I need. When I pull on my black or navy business suit, my only concern is whether the skirt will still zip.

My colleagues at The Enquirer, I am pleased to say, seem to judge me on the quality of my work and whether or not I make a new pot of coffee after taking the last of the previous one.

They will still eat lunch with me, even if they have nicer shoes.

Uniforms are a great idea. Lynwood Battle isn't asking a lot of clothing. He's not asking that clothes do the job of parents. He's not asking them to teach discipline or raise test scores. He's just asking for a policy that makes them No Big Deal.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM) and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.