Allentown school uniform cost complaints bring a challenge: Can griping families afford other luxuries?

With only one or two sour notes, the Allentown School District has performed a symphony of common sense, joining the enlightened educational world by requiring students to wear uniforms.

In many advanced nations, in America's well-behaved parochial schools and in other settings, uniforms motivate students to focus more on academic performance and less on seeing who can sport the funkiest outfit.

Allentown implemented mandatory uniforms with the start of school on Tuesday, and by Wednesday The Morning Call reported that 98 percent of students complied with the rule and it was the "beginning of a new era for the district."

Allen High School had one set of limited color options for polo shirts, tucked into khaki or black pants (knee-length shorts optional) or skirts. Dieruff High had a different set of specified colors for the tops. There were different variations for elementary and middle schools.

The word that hit me was "hallelujah!" I have been harping on the need for uniforms in public schools for decades.

The loudest sour note came from parents who complained about the cost of the outfits. One parent, it was reported on Sunday, told of spending $85 to put several uniforms on layaway and then being unable to get them for lack of the $165 balance.

Others unable to handle the cost of uniforms, that story said, could get vouchers worth $50 per student, with taxpayers picking up the tab, and there were already 2,500 requests for vouchers in a district with 17,000 students. (So nearly 15 percent of Allentown students have parents who say they can't buy them clothes.)

Another parent put the problem in perspective. With a daughter at Dieruff and a son at South Mountain, Rufayda Alailan was quoted as saying it cost $40 last year just for a pair of jeans, and this year the total cost for three sets of uniform tops and bottoms was also $40.

There have been times when I was flat broke and desperate to find ways to care for my family. My wife has had hardships you cannot even imagine. So our hearts go out to people who are struggling, but the sob stories from the Allentown School District compel me to make a challenge.

I'll be happy to visit any family that claims to be unable to afford uniforms so I can check out a few things in the home.

Is there a television set? Is there cable service? Is there any video game or other electronic gadget unrelated to studies? Has there been a beer or two in the refrigerator during the last year? How about junk food?

Do the kids have wardrobes that cost more than uniforms? Does the family buy food for any pets? Can anyone in the family afford piercings, purple hair or tattoos? Has anyone in the family done any partying?

I don't begrudge anybody the right to have a few luxuries or to have a good time now and then, but if anybody answers "yes" to any of those questions, they should stop wailing about the cost of uniforms.

If, on the other hand, there are parents who, through no fault of their own, are broke and have none of those goodies, I'll devote an entire column to a crusade to help them. I'll even pitch in a few bucks, and I'm more parsimonious than Jack Benny.

Meanwhile, violations of the uniform policy, it was reported, could bring sanctions, ranging from removal from a classroom to more serious steps, such as loss of extracurricular activities or suspension.

"We're not going to punish the student if we know it's a hardship," Nicholas Perez, the district's director of community and student services, was quoted as saying. "But obviously if there [are] defiance issues — we know it's flat-out defiance — we will deal with that through our code of conduct."

According to Sunday's story, one student expressed a view I hear often when uniforms are proposed. "I hate it," he said of Allentown's new policy. "With the uniforms, you're just a plain, boring person."

I have news for him. Until you accomplish something meaningful in life, you're just a plain, boring person no matter how extravagantly you doll yourself up. The only people your funky outfits impress are other feeble-minded adolescents. With uniforms, students who want to impress somebody must do it with academic performance, an idea that may horrify some of them.

In 2001, the troubled Philadelphia School District implemented a school uniform policy following reports that "gang clothing" in school was a major disruption. The policy seems to be working well, and when it's relaxed there can be problems.

Last year, for example, one Philly high school decided to let students wear whatever they wanted for just one day. One girl wore a Mitt Romney shirt, when he was running for president against Barack Obama. A teacher said it was a "Democratic" school, demanded that the girl take off the shirt, compared it to a Ku Klux Klan outfit, and threatened to use a marker pen to cross out Romney's name on the shirt.

So it's not just thuggish students who can cause sartorial strife.

In Allentown, Sunday's story noted that Perez anticipates "some bumps and hurdles in the road" for some students, but, the story said, "the sooner they get over it, the sooner the focus can shift to learning."

Hallelujah.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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