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Florida Imposes 'Learnfare' Rule

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Teenage mothers in Florida who have dropped out of school will have to return to the classroom next month or risk losing their monthly welfare benefits, under a new "learnfare" rule set to go into effect Oct. 1.

The proposed rule change, announced in August by the state's department of health and rehabilitative services, would affect young mothers ages 14 through 19. It would require them to enroll in either a public school or a vocational or job-training program in order to avoid losing benefits under the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.

The plan makes Florida the sixth state--the others are Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Wisconsin--to link public assistance under afdc to school attendance, said Candace Romig, human-services director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wisconsin last year became the first to adopt such a program, after President Reagan intervened personally to obtain a waiver for the state from afdc regulations prohibiting such eligibility requirements. The other state learnfare programs have also obtained federal waivers.

Full implementation of Wisconsin's program, delayed by legislators last spring in the wake of concerns raised about school overcrowding and inadequate special services, is to begin this month.

Ms. Romig said social-services agencies in Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, and Ohio are investigating similar rule changes.

Some 3,900 Affected

Florida officials said the new "Teen Parent Initiative" will affect some 3,900 women, 20 percent of whom are expected to return to public schools.

Women who refuse to return to school or obtain job training will lose their personal benefits, but aid to their children will continue uninterrupted, officials said. Currently, a low-income parent with one child qualifies for $197 a month in state welfare benefits.

"What we want to do is emphasize to them to return to school or stay in school ... to get their degree or ged certificate," said Carol McNally, the program's supervisor. "We're not doing this to be punitive, we're doing this to help."

Florida officials estimate that 50 percent of all teenagers who become pregnant drop out of school, 60 percent of welfare recipients lack a high-school diploma, and 50 percent of all teenagers receiving state assistance have a second child within three years of having their first.

By motivating teenage mothers to earn diplomas, state officials hope to make them productive adults while also shrinking the welfare rolls, Ms. McNally said.

The initiative, she explained, is part of "Project Independence," which the legislature created in 1987 when it enacted the Florida Employment Opportunity Act.

The law, passed by a unanimous vote in both the House and Senate, requires the health and rehabilitative-services agency to coordinate employment and job-training programs for welfare recipients.

Thus far, according to Ms. McNally, about 62,000 of the state's 85,594 single mothers on welfare have en4rolled in training programs.

State officials say they have not yet determined what impact the initiative will have on Florida's already overcrowded classrooms.

Russell Wheatley, assistant superintendent for student services in Dade County, predicted that space could be a problem in his district, depending on the number of young women who return.

The district, the state's largest, already operates two centers for pregnant teenagers, serving about 1,000 students a year. Those students tend to remain enrolled in school during their pregnancy, Mr. Wheatley said, but the dropout rate soars once the children are born and day care becomes a problem.

To address the issue, lawmakers stipulated that $2 million of the $3 million earmarked for the incentive program be used to provide such services, Ms. McNally said. The state also will hire 35 counselors to work with the young mothers.

Wendy Cullar, the education department's deputy director for instructional programs, said the commissioner of education and the secretary of health and rehabilitative services had signed an agreement to conduct joint planning and budgeting to help ensure the program's success.

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