At Schools, It's Good-bye Hilfiger, Hello Blazer

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Good news for purveyors of pint-size coats and ties: School uniforms are storming back onto public school curriculums. The latest evidence of this trend came Monday when the Philadelphia school board approved a plan requiring each of the school system's 217,000 students to ditch their logo tees and up-to-the-minute fashion statements in favor of school-mandated shirts, skirts and pants (to be decided by each principal). In doing so, the city became the largest school district in the nation to adopt such a policy, which educators believe helps focus kids' attentions away from their appearance and toward their studies. Such standards also aim to reduce economic distinctions and to suppress the cruelty of school cliques.

But does it work? And does it interfere with a student's rights to free expression? The jury is still out on effectiveness; a 1998 study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that barely half (52 percent) of principals in schools with mandated uniforms reported improved academic performance. There are detractors, including some parents and students in Philadelphia, who turn the argument on its head, believing that enforcement of a dress code will actually distract from the business of learning. And then there are those education analysts who have raised fears that uniforms could in fact accentuate the chasm between the haves and the have-nots. "It's very hard, especially in poor areas, to mandate school uniforms because some families simply cannot afford the required clothes," says TIME education writer Jodie Morse. With an eye on parity, some districts offer concessions to students who can't pay for the pleated skirts or pants — a sorry compromise that could feed the same cliquish tendencies uniforms are meant to dissipate.

As for the issue of students' rights, the law is somewhat fuzzy as to whether public institutions can insist on compliance, a subject in which the American Civil Liberties Union is taking a close interest. According to Associated Press reports, the ACLU's Pennsylvania chapter will keep a beady eye on Philadelphia's policy, and could file suit against the school district if it feels the dress code goes too far or does not make provisions for opt-outs (on religious grounds, for example). In the meantime, while there doesn't seem to be much consolation for boys facing the specter of an adolescent wardrobe defined primarily by necktie purchases, girls have a little more room for individuality. Here's a quick tip: Buy your skirt one size too big so you can roll it at the waist. It's great for those really hot spring days — and for when you want to make an impression. Trust me on this one.