The growing movement toward public-school uniforms scored an important victory with a federal appeals court ruling that allows school boards to require uniforms if educators believe they improve discipline and learning.

The Bossier Parish, La., school system’s requirement that students wear uniforms was upheld Jan. 24 by 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

U.S. District Judge Donald Walter had dismissed a 1999 lawsuit filed by parents who objected to the uniform policy. The 5th Circuit court refused to revive the lawsuit.

The ruling rejected arguments that the policy violated students’ First Amendment freedom of expression rights, that the uniforms cost too much, and that a uniform requirement violates student liberty without due process required under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Educators and school boards throughout the state tout uniforms as a way to promote campus unity and safety while decreasing peer pressure. They argue that uniforms free teachers and administrators to teach instead of enforcing dress codes.

The 5th Circuit, citing Supreme Court precedents, said the uniform policy passes constitutional muster if it furthers an important government interest, if that interest is unrelated to the suppression of student expression, and if the restrictions are no more than needed to facilitate that interest.

The Bossier policy met all three tests, the court ruled. “Although students are restricted from wearing clothing of their choice at school, students remain free to wear what they want after school hours. Students may still express their views through other mediums during the school day,” the opinion stated.

The ruling marks the highest court action on an issue that, until now, generally has been resolved by making a program voluntary or allowing exceptions.

In 1996, the ACLU settled a lawsuit out of court with Long Beach, Calif., the district credited for originating the public-school uniform trend. That settlement allows parents to opt out of the uniform policy.

A recent survey by the Education Commission on the States shows two dozen states have laws allowing local school boards to encourage or require the wearing of uniforms at public schools.

In Montana, the state Senate on Jan. 30 approved a watered-down version of a bill to require school districts to assess the need for school dress codes and allow them the option of adopting uniform policies. The original version of the bill would have required districts to adopt school dress codes.

As of 1997, federal statistics showed that 3 percent of public schools use uniforms.