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Wisconsin 'Learnfare' Law Delayed To Ease Expected Enrollment Rush

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State officials in Wisconsin have agreed to delay the implementation of Gov. Tommy Thompson's controversial new "learnfare" program requiring teen-age members of welfare families to attend school or risk losing state aid.

One of the first programs of its kind nationally, learnfare seeks to "break the cycle of welfare dependency" by making school attendance a condition for receiving payments through the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program for teen-age parents and welfare families6with school-age children 13 and older.

The program has attracted the attention of President Reagan, a longtime critic of traditional welfare programs. According to state officials, Mr. Reagan personally telephoned the Governor to assure him that a federal waiver enabling the program to proceed would be granted.

State officials estimate that, for a family of three headed by a single mother, with one truant teen-ager, the average monthly cut in benefits would be $77.

But the Wisconsin proposal has been mired since the summer in partisan politics and legal technicalities. State officials now say it will be phased in more gradually than previously proposed and will be fully implemented by next September.

The officials say the delay was primarily aimed at giving school districts time to adjust to the unexpectedly large number of returning students the program will involve.

It marked the seeming resolution of a heated dispute over the learnfare idea that has pitted some of the state's largest school districts and the Democratic-controlled legislature against the Republican Governor and his executive branch.

'Creative' Veto Power

The controversy erupted in July, when the Governor made what some called a "creative" use of his line-item veto authority to cross out restrictions lawmakers had written into the law governing the new program.

His action effectively expanded learnfare to include not only teen-age parents, as the legislature had intended, but also every welfare family with teen-agers.

As a result, as many as 5,000 truant teen-agers and school dropouts were expected to return this month to classrooms across the the state--a development that has angered legislators and left school officials wondering how to serve the unexpected influx.

The dispute came to a head this month when the legislature's Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, which reviews state regulations before they take effect, voted to halt the new program. The legislators cited technical illegalities with the proposed regulations for learnfare.

"What we've had is a classic power struggle," noted Douglas Haselow, coordinator of government relations for the Milwaukee public schools.

The matter was resolved, in part, on Nov. 12, when leaders of the General Assembly met with officials from the state health and human services department and decided to postpone the Nov. 1 start-up date for implementing the full program.

They agreed, instead, to phase in the program over the next 10 months, beginning in February with teen-age parents and the parents of 13- and 14-year-olds who skip school. Sanctions against that group would become effective in March.

All welfare families with teen-agers will be included in the program by next September.

"I think some of the school districts may feel a little better with the longer phase-in period because of the number of students that would be going back into the school districts," explained State Representative John Antaramian, the Democratic co-chairman of the rules committee and an architect of the compromise.

Deluged With Students

The expected flood of returning students was of particular concern to the Milwaukee system, where officials anticipated the return to the schools of between 2,000 and 3,000 teen-agers.

Under the compromise, an estimated 500 students are expected to return in February, according to Mr. Haselow. The remainder, he noted, would come in September, after school officials have had an opportunity to budget for the remedial help and special services that many of the returning students will need.

For now, he said, "we will deal with it."

"We'll place as many as we can in regular or alternative classrooms," Mr. Haselow added. He said the rest would have to be placed in basic8skills classes taught by substitute teachers.

School officials in Madison also voiced philosophical objections to learnfare.

"One of our school board's concerns has been that it is more punitive than supportive for people who are obviously in crisis anyway," added E. James Travis, superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District. He said Madison school-board members were also worried that, if forced to report students' absences to state officials, the schools would be viewed as enemies by the communities they serve.

"Obviously, the compromise isn't going to resolve some of the philosophical problems with the program," said John Sumi, an aide to State Senator John Plewa, Representative Antaramian's Senate counterpart on the rules committee.

He and Mr. Antaramian said legislators planned to introduce a host of bills in January to "clean up" problems with the program. Principal among them will be a measure to restore funds to pay for day-care services for the teen-age parents who would be forced to attend school under the new program. The measure's provision for day-care funding had been eliminated as part of the Governor's veto action.

Thomas A. Loftus, the Democratic speaker of the state House, predicted that the controversy over learnfare had just begun in Wisconsin.

"There's no money for the program," he said. "It's really the first time schools will have been in the business of administering a welfare program and my guess is they're going to spending a lot of time in court."

He said the controversial nature of the Governor's veto may prompt welfare families who are harmed by the program to file lawsuits against schools and state officials.

In contrast to the recent furor, learnfare met surprisingly little opposition when it was approved--in its narrower version--by the legislature earlier in the summer.

State officials attributed the easy passage to widespread public dissatisfaction with the state's welfare system, which, after a 6 percent reduction in benefits last year, still ranked seventh-highest in the nation in terms of the size of individual payments.

"When we passed the legislation for teen-age parents, it was more of a sense that you want to break the cycle of welfare dependency at that age," Mr. Antaramian said.

Added Mr. Loftus: "It has gone from what the legislature considered to be an experiment with a small group of teen mothers to a Frankenstein that involves about 38,000 teens on afdc"

The program was one of several welfare-reform measures proposed by Mr. Thompson, who was elected last year on a platform promising changes in the state's welfare system.

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