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New school uniform policies would pay off for Florida school districts under bill

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers want to help kids across the state with an age-old quandary: what to wear to school.

A House panel on Thursday approved a bill that would encourage school districts to adopt a standard attire policy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

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 Hillsborough County district, $715,000 for Pinellas and $478,000 for Pasco. 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.

No school district in the Tampa Bay region has a districtwide school uniform policy. Instead, the districts let individual schools decide.

Hillsborough schools can require uniforms if at least 75 percent of teachers and parents support the plan, according to school district rules. Families can opt out of the program for whatever reason.

Pinellas also leaves the decision up to each individual school, spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said. A poll of principals from 2013 found that 35 of the district's 118 schools had a modified dress code.

Students at John M. Sexton Elementary in St. Petersburg must wear white, powder blue, purple or teal collared shirts to school. Navy bottoms are required.

"We really like it," principal Suzette Burns said of the policy. "It levels the playing field for the kids. We include name tags as part of the uniform so the adults in the building can call every child by name."

No Pasco schools require uniforms. Administrators at Seven Springs Middle in New Port Richey considered adopting a mandatory uniform code last year but dropped the idea because too few parents participated in a vote.

The proposal under consideration, HB 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 districtwide policies.

Adkins said there might 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.

But 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 will actually be less expensive" than buying nonuniform back-to-school clothing, she said.

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com. Follow @kmcgrory.

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