I can't believe I haven't written about this topic before because it used to be one of my favorite subjects to debate back in the mid-1990's when we started Jefferson Academy. Of the four charter schools I've helped start, none require school uniforms. In fact, in northern Jefferson County where there are four K-8 charter schools all modeled after Jefferson Academy, none of the schools require uniforms.
When we were putting together the charter application we did the research on school uniforms. In fact, the school we were modeling after, Academy Charter School in Castle Rock (the first charter school to open in Colorado), requires uniforms. We purposefully decided not to go that direction. This decision was later debated at JA board meetings by board members who wanted uniforms. Ultimately, we decided that since whether or not the school required uniforms was a fundamental piece of the charter application it would therefore, need to go to a vote of the membership (parents) before it would ever change. There hasn't been much serious discussion about it since.
First, let me throw out that I can see why some charter schools require uniforms, especially in urban settings where there are concerns for wearing gang colors or the inequality of what students may be able to afford to wear. I don't believe, however, that uniforms impact student academic achievement.
There are numerous scientific studies to support my position. Brunsma and Rockquemore's study found: "The findings indicate that student uniforms have no direct effect on substance use, behavioral problems, or attendance. Contrary to current discourse, the authors found a negative effect of uniforms on student academic achievement."
Additional studies tend to be inconclusive and neglect other impacting factors such as school culture, school size, leadership or curriculum.
My reasons for not believing school uniforms should be required in most situations is mostly anecdotal. A friend said he grew up attending a parochial school and when he graduated he didn't know how to dress himself for work or some social occasions. He never had to learn how to make clothing decisions while he was growing up.
I wanted my children to learn how to dress appropriately while they were still in my home. I realize that I was a very involved parent with high standards for my children and we were never really into trendy clothes. We did, though, have numerous discussions over the years about what was appropriate. For example, my children were greatly influenced by the time we spent with family in rural North Dakota where the opening of deer season is considered a school holiday and literally everyone is wearing orange. But living in the school district where the Columbine tragedy occurred, was not the place to wear camo.
One of the strongest arguments for uniforms is that they are an equalizer. A charter school that needs that type of equalization amongst students has a legitimate need. For the schools that don't, students learn how to interact with a variety of students, deal with inevitable cliques, and realize not everyone is created equal. In schools with the uniform requirement, students often still figure out their differences by jewelry, shoes, and backpacks.
It's safe to say that factors such as high expectations, a solid curriculum, effective leadership and good instruction have a greater effect on student achievement than school uniforms.