School uniforms -- yes, but

From time to time, the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District takes up resolutions with obscure, if any, links to education. It voted to oppose Proposition 8, for instance, and to support Iranian dissidents. So perhaps it shouldn’t be completely surprising that the Los Angeles City Council meandered outside its own backyard recently with a resolution on a subject that more fittingly falls within the purview of LAUSD -- school uniforms.

The council urged the district to require student uniforms at all of its schools as a way of improving both safety and academic achievement. Currently, the district leaves such decisions to individual schools, few of which have adopted uniforms.

If the council is going to involve itself in school district affairs, we’d prefer to see it offer coordinated assistance in areas that affect schools but fall under the city’s jurisdiction. Want to do schools a real favor? Change some bus stops and police patrol procedures so that students can travel to and from campus more safely.

Still, school uniforms have merit, and we wish more public schools would consider requiring them. In gang-plagued areas where wearing a certain color is enough to set off a fight, they create a more neutral atmosphere on campus. In affluent areas, they tone down cliquish awareness of whether one girl is wearing Wal-Mart while another is donning Juicy Couture. They generally save families money while instilling the idea that people are supposed to dress appropriately for the task at hand -- in this case, learning -- and cut down on the interminable fights about whether too much underwear or midriff is showing. They would even quell increasingly litigious battles over controversial student T-shirts that might, for example, denounce gays -- or, alternatively, Christian conservatives.

For all that, uniforms are more helpful at some schools than others. L.A. Unified is trying to empower schools to make decisions locally rather than delivering edicts from downtown headquarters, and this is a perfect issue to leave to the control of individual campuses. One day -- when they’re no longer confronted with figuring out how to keep schools operating while state funding is cut, and cut again -- district leaders should encourage wider adoption of uniforms and help principals overcome the inevitable howls of protest, while leaving the matter in the hands of individual schools. L.A. Unified has to set some -- yes -- uniform rules on urgent issues, but student fashion isn’t one of those.