Politics & Government

Florida Legislature considers incentives for school uniforms

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers want to help students across the state with an age-old quandary: What to wear to school?

A House panel Thursday gave its approval to a plan to encourage school districts to adopt a standard attire policy for students in grades K-8.

The bill includes a cash incentive -- $10 per student -- for school districts that comply.

That could mean as much as $1.4 million for the Broward district, and $2.25 million for Miami-Dade. The money would be earmarked for school safety initiatives.

"We think this would streamline morning activities for moms and dads, and help improve the climate at schools across the state," House K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Janet Adkins said Thursday.

Neither Miami-Dade nor Broward has a districtwide school uniform policy. The districts let individual schools decide.

"It's a decision that involves the teachers, students and parents," Broward schools spokeswoman Nadine Drew said. "So it varies from school to school, and community to community."

Broward doesn't keep track of the number of schools with a standard attire policy, Drew said.

All but two of Miami-Dade's 340 schools have some kind of school uniform program, school system administrator Sally Alayon told lawmakers earlier this year.

School Board Member Raquel Regalado said uniforms "have worked" in Miami-Dade schools.

"They've eliminated a lot of the socio-economic pressures that students face," Regalado said, adding that uniforms also help with school security "because you know immediately who is supposed to be there and who is not."

She said the district would welcome the additional funding.

The proposal under consideration (House Bill 7043) would give families the ability to opt out of a mandatory uniform policy for religious reasons or because of a disability.

It calls for a total of $10 million to go to school systems that adopt district-wide policies.

Adkins acknowledged there may not be enough to give each participating district $10 for every elementary and middle-school student. In that case, the $10 million will be distributed on a prorated basis.

School uniforms can be a controversial subject. The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged dress codes in schools, saying individual parents and children ought to be able to make their own decisions about clothing.

The ACLU of Florida declined to comment on the bill Thursday.

Lawmakers from both parties are on board.

State Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said he was "dead against" the proposal at first, largely because he thought it would stifle students' creativity.

Geller changed his mind after hearing from students, parents and employees.

"If you have uniforms, nobody is wearing gang colors," he said. "Nobody is being teased or bullied because of what they are wearing. These are all solid reasons."

Adkins pointed to another benefit.

It would "actually be less expensive" than buying non-uniform back-to-school clothing, she said.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.