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Proponents of school-uniform policies got another boost in February, when President Clinton ordered the Department of Education to distribute a manual on the subject to the nation's 15,000 school districts.

The six-page document, intended as a road map for districts interested in adopting uniform dress codes for students, provides details of model programs and spells out ways for district leaders to usher in legal and workable programs. "If student uniforms can help deter school violence, promote discipline, and foster a better learning environment, then we should offer our strong support to the schools and parents that try them,'' Clinton wrote in a memorandum to Secretary of Education Richard Riley.

Clinton announced the publication of the manual during his weekly radio address on Feb. 24 and then again later that day during a speech at a middle school in Long Beach, Calif., the first district in the nation to require elementary and middle school students to dress in uniform fashion. [See story on page 12.] In his speech, President Clinton praised school officials and students in the 83,000-student district for creating a safer, more disciplined environment that focuses on learning.

According to a White House adviser, public response to Clinton's initial endorsement of uniforms in this year's State of the Union Address was so positive that the administration decided to push the idea during the president's visit to California. "We were surprised about the amount of attention the proposal generated,'' said Jeremy Ben-Ami, a domestic-policy adviser to the president. "Everything that we've heard on this issue has been positive.''

Still, some political observers suggest that Clinton has chosen to highlight the school-uniform issue in this election year because it strikes a politically moderate chord. By discussing the need to return to traditional values of dress and demeanor, they say, President Clinton is moving into an arena that has long been the domain of Republican politicians. These observers also suggest that the president finds the issue appealing because it allows him to advance a popular idea that doesn't involve an expensive, intrusive federal program.

"It must look very nice to people at the White House in that it's popular and won't cost anything,'' says Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "It strikes me that if this wasn't a re-election year, we might have heard less about this.''

--Jessica Portner

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