Karen Hill is unhappy. And she thinks cotton farmers and others in the industry should be upset, too, about what she feels is an adverse impact on cotton demand from the trend requiring uniforms or other standardized dress for school children.

The wife of a Tennessee cotton farmer, she says in too many cases these rules result in parents having to buy mandated clothing that is mainly polyester, and often at greater cost than for comparable cotton garments.

“This is an issue I’ve not heard anyone in the industry or in the ag media address,” Hill says.

“In my state, some 500,000 public school children aren’t allowed to wear denim or cotton tee shirts. At just two pair of denims per student, that’s potentially 1 million pair of denims that won’t be sold during the school year. Multiply that across thousands of school systems nationally that have Standardized Student Attire requirements, and that’s a lot of lost business for cotton.

“As long as school boards keep banning perfectly decent, modest clothing, and until people in the cotton sector start pressuring legislators to see the economic downside of these requirements, it will contribute to keeping cotton demand depressed.”

In many cases, Hill notes, the required school clothing is as much as 60 percent polyester.

“Even if parents wanted to buy cotton, in most cases they can’t,” she says. “And the polyester people are charging cotton prices because they have no competition for these uniforms.

“The county in which we farm is the No. 1 cotton-producing county in Tennessee, but the school board there has banned wearing denim. Cotton is an important part of the county’s local economy — more so than soybeans and corn, which just go to the river and don’t have all the people touching them, and deriving an economic benefit, that cotton does.

“If this is happening in a rural county, how much chance does cotton have in a school system like Nashville or in other metropolitan systems that have no connection to agriculture?”

Even in schools that don’t require uniforms or specific items of clothing, Hill says, stringent dress code rules can get a child in trouble. “They’re banning plain cotton shirts because they have a small logo, or the wrong kind of buttons, or even a design in the thread. One mom I know had to take a different pair of pants to her son at school because the ones he was wearing had a small Dickies tag on the pocket.”

Sociologist David Brunsma, assistant professor at the University of Missouri, has done a decade-long study of the school uniforms issue. His conclusion: uniforms have no positive effect on student behavior or achievement, nor do they save money for parents.

And he says, they “may have negative effects … by increasing the division between economic status in schools and drawing the focus away from fundamental problems within schools.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com