During the Civil War, it was possible for a conscript to avoid serving in uniform by paying a substitute to serve in his place, or by simply paying the government $300. In 21st century America, we draft all children into school until a certain age, and we don’t allow for substitutions or for buying their way out of compulsory attendance. But only in certain schools do we require the wearing of a uniform.
In Cobb County, Georgia, a few schools that require students to wear uniforms make it possible to buy a one-day exemption for as little as one dollar. 
The practice of mandating school uniforms has come under fire from many sides. Some argue that it is discriminatory, citing the fact that the schools that require uniforms are predominantly ones that have a majority poor and/or non-white population. Some point out that uniform regulations are just one more trap for kids who are already too often targeted for disciplinary code violations. Some complain about the expense of purchasing a separate wardrobe just for school.
With the Cobb County “dress down” policies, a different financial argument is being heard. Parents complain that they should not be expected to pay for allowing their children the privilege of wearing their own clothes.
As a parent and educator, I have had a number of occasions to consider school uniforms, and the role they can play in school climate and the learning process. My own kids have been enrolled in schools that required a uniform and in some schools that did not. My thoughts about these requirements have differed significantly depending on the totality of the circumstances.
Uniforms can have a positive effect on a school community. One school my sons attended is 50% immigrant/refugee and 50% U.S.-born children from mostly financially comfortable middle class families. At this school the uniforms disguise some very real income inequalities and facilitate children seeing each other as equals. The required uniform is a simple white or light blue shirt and navy blue pants – relatively inexpensive and versatile attire. Additionally, it is part of the culture of that school for the families that could afford it to donate clothing – mostly gently used – and thus spread a little material wealth around the school community. I believe that the uniform requirement is a very sensible idea in the community created by that school.
But that was a special case. Community is the product of a spirit of unity and shared purpose, and cannot be created through appearances alone.
My older son’s current high school requires not just uniforms, but garments that display the school name and colors – an odd bit of tribalism that seems calculated to impress those outside the school more than it is likely to bind members of the school community together. These uniforms must be purchased from a preferred vendor.
It is early – just two months into my son’s high school career, but I have yet to see evidence of any benefit from the mandatory uniform policy. And I have my own reasons to doubt whether this requirement does more good than harm.
The problem is, adolescence is a natural time for the search for identity, and uniforms suppress one avenue for that search. Granted, some kids have no problem finding themselves in a blue blazer – some even prefer the anonymity that comes from looking like all of their peers. But there are also kids who interpret these rules as more than just an insult to their taste – it is a denial of their right to make decisions about something that is very personal to them. Wouldn’t it be better to teach them how to make good decisions than to take the matter completely out of their hands as if they can’t be trusted?
Some kids need desperately to develop a positive self-image, and they need adult support in doing so. When they dig deeper to find what makes them unique, they often don’t like what they see. And that is okay – in fact, it is not only a normal phase of adolescence, it can be the motivating factor that sparks self-improvement. But without guidance and support on an individual basis from responsible adults, a healthy search for identity can turn into an unhealthy cry from a very confused young person for attention and respect.
The worst examples of adolescent behavior – actual anti-social or dangerous acts worthy of disciplinary intervention – are the result of frustration and a misplaced sense of identity. I feel safe in asserting that a kid who would do something as self-destructive as firing a gun in public, or fighting with a policeman at school, or hitting a teacher who intervened with a fistfight in a classroom, doesn’t have a well-grounded self-image. 
Uniforms are all too often a mask to create the illusion of peaceful cooperation with authority. Requiring them is just another tool in the arsenal of coercions schools employ to create an air of discipline and a culture of conformity. In special cases they may have some value in building a sense of community, but allowing kids to buy their way out of the requirement seems to undercut this value by creating divisions while doing nothing to address individual needs.
 French, R. (2015, October 2). Some schools letting students skip uniform. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, p. B1, B3.