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Welfare 'Sleeper': Schools Face Brunt of Law's Training Burden

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The federal welfare-reform law will soon place substantial new burdens on public schools that many are unprepared for, say state officials who are working on plans for complying with the first major revision in the welfare system since its creation in 1935.

"The Family Support Act is a real sleeper," said Michael C. Laracy, an assistant commissioner in the New Jersey Department of Human Services. "I don't think anyone in the education community is truly aware of the enormous demands on the education system the law will make."

Over the next two years--and in many cases as early as next fall--schools will begin to feel the pressure of the $3.3-billion law's unprecedented requirements for education and training for many of the 11 million Americans now on the welfare rolls.

Schools are not the only agencies that exist to provide such services, state officials say. But it is becoming increasingly clear that schools will be in a great many instances the most cost-effective means of offering the kinds of programs that states must provide.

The law targets in particular young parents without high-school diplomas, many of whom are single teenagers; they will be required to return to school or enroll in a degree-equivalency program in order to receive welfare benefits.

As early as next fall in some states, school administrators could face an acute need for programs to serve teen mothers--and perhaps for school-based child care.

And the adult-basic-education system--in many places now underfunded and understaffed--must brace for a sharp increase in demand that could exceed program capacities, educators and welfare administrators say.

Neither federal nor state officials are able to say yet precisely how many people will be placed in programs over the next several years and what proportion will be teenage mothers. But the Department of Health and Human Services has said it expects 438,000 individuals to be served in the first five years.

And a Senate document points out that of the 25 percent of all welfare recipients who are on the rolls for a decade or more, most moved into the system as teenage parents.

Welfare administrators in several states said last week that their work to gear up the new system has raised serious questions about the readiness of both high schools and adult-basic-education programs to serve a population that, in many cases, has already experienced failure in educational settings.

And while many states have model programs aimed at young welfare recipients without diplomas, most administrators questioned whether, in a climate of fiscal constraints, there will be enough funding to adequately expand such programs.

'Common Agenda'

But both educators and social-service administrators also said the law's requirements open new doors for collaborative efforts between the education and social-service sectors.

"It is important to realize early that educators and social-service administrators have a common agenda and complementary skills," said Janet E. Levy, director of a collaborative project for the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"There is capacity in the act to help schools meet the demand if the systems work together," Ms. Levy said. Nasbe and several other education, welfare, and advocacy organizations are preparing a handbook on the new law for school administrators to be released next month.

Ms. Levy stressed the need for educators to get involved in the early stages of planning for the new program in order to "minimize the pain to the system."

The New Rules

The new law requires all states to establish by no later than October 1990 a Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (jobs) program that provides education and training services to welfare recipients. But states have the option of beginning their program as early as this July. Programs are to be available statewide by 1992.

How much a local school district will be affected by the new law depends on a series of decisions made at the state level, including who will be required to participate and whether participation, particularly for teen mothers, will be on a full-time or part-time basis.

"It is difficult to generalize the impact of this law, because so much rests on individual decisions made in each state," Ms. Levy said. "But I think you can say that in virtually every area, there will be some impact."

First Priority

The federal law requires that states provide education and training services first to voluntary participants. After that, the states are to mandate the participation of as many target groups "as state resources permit."

Because a certain percentage of recipients are required to be served by a jobs program in order for states to receive their full federal funding match, most states will have to serve more than volunteers.

The first target group to be served under the law is parents under age 24 who lack a high-school diploma. Neither hhs nor state officials are able to provide a national estimate of how many welfare recipients fall into that category.

In order to require participation in the jobs program, a state must provide support services, including child care and transportation.

Mothers with children younger than age 3 are exempt from mandatory participation. States may lower the age ceiling from 3 to 1 if they choose.

However, mothers younger than age 20 with very young children are not included in the exemption. Each state will decide how soon after the birth of her child a young mother on welfare will be required to return to school or enroll in an alternative-education program.

Some states, such as Wisconsin, will have a strict mandate that teenage mothers return to an education program within 90 days after the birth of their child. Others, such as Illinois, are planning to make that decision on a case-by-case basis.

Education Prescribed

While a wide range of education and job-training activities are acceptable under the law for most target groups, it specifically states that a custodial parent under age 20 without a high-school degree must participate in an education program leading to a diploma.

The proposed regulations for the new programs underscore that stipulation and stress reliance on school districts to provide the educational services. The rules state that "excusing custodial parents under age 18 from high-school attendance should be rare."

An individual age 18 or older can be assigned to a job-training program instead of an education program, but only if the state can document that an education program is inappropriate.

"The 'under 20' group is definitely the big challenge of the law," said Lorraine Aronson, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Income Maintenance.

The question many welfare administrators are grappling with is how to make aid recipients' mandatory learning experiences different from their past experiences in the education system, Ms. Aronson said.

"We are clearly talking about people who have dropped out recently and who do not want to return to the site of failure," she pointed out.

"This is not business as usual," agreed Scott Brohinsky, Connecticut's deputy commissioner of education. "It is key for educators to get a better understanding of the needs of this population and how to make program adjustments to serve them."

Expand Existing Programs

Many states will try to strengthen and greatly expand existing model programs designed to serve teen parents and at-risk students.

In Florida, for example, the state welfare agency has been operating in 14 counties an education and training program called units for teen parents. One component of a larger training program, units provides much of what the federal law prescribes, offering child care and transportation so that participants can attend vocational-technical schools.

"We collaborated with school principals and adult educators to design programs that meet the teen parent's needs," said James Clark, the units director. Some educators, he said, are now employed by the project.

In New Jersey, where officials estimate that 10 percent of all new welfare applicants are teenage parents, Mr. Laracy said the state plans to expand the Teen Progress program, which has been operating in Newark and Camden.

That program, however, has offered a variety of options to youthful parents, with its major focus on job training and employment. "The new law," Mr. Laracy said, " will require us, over a period of a couple of years, to redirect a lot of resources to education."

"We were not prepared for the extent the regulations lead us in that direction," he said.

The law and its regulations may be too prescriptive, Mr. Laracy maintained, in mandating that education be "the exclusive answer to a teen parent's problems."

But Sylvia Jackson, administrator of Wisconsin's division of economic support, disagreed. "As far as I'm concerned," she said, "the law didn't go far enough."

Alternative Schools

Wisconsin has already implemented a controversial "learnfare" program that requires all teenage welfare recipients, whether parents or not, to be in school. It was the first state to make school attendance a precondition for youths of school age to receive aid. Other states, such as Minnesota and Florida, have since crafted similar programs.

Most of the teens receiving benefits in Wisconsin are involved in special programs for at-risk students offered in schools statewide.

Teen parents in most parts of the state are provided with day care and transportation so they can return to their high school or enroll in a degree-equivalency program. Those choosing high school participate in programs for at-risk students.

In Milwaukee, however, the state has also helped fund an alternative high school for teen mothers that includes child care on the premises.

The Milwaukee program allows a student to enter the special school when pregnant and stay there for a year after the birth of her child. In addition to regular coursework, the school offers courses in child care, parenting, and job skills.

"There is a tremendous need for this kind of program," said Ms. Jackson. "And the in-school day care is what keeps the students at school."

Child Care at School

Many states are choosing school-based centers as a means of meeting the law's requirements for child care.

Florida officials have begun negotiating with the Dade County school district to establish such centers, Mr. Clark said.

Four child care centers will be placed in areas of the district that serve the greatest number of teen parents, according to Maurice Wilson, director of vocational education for the school system, which serves Miami. Mr. Wilson said each site will receive a mobile unit that can serve 40 infants and toddlers.

Illinois officials are planning to open such a center at a high school in Chicago, according to Susan Suter, director of the state department of public aid.

"I definitely think the welfare-reform law will spur the creation of these school-based centers," Ms. Suter said.

Some welfare administrators see potential in providing such centers.

"Here we have an opportunity to address a problem at both ends," said Ms. Aronson of Connecticut. "By combining these centers with early-childhood programs, we can really address some issues around intergenerational dependency."

Comprehensive alternative programs are expensive, educators and welfare administrators said last week, and they are likely to be limited to urban centers with high rates of teen pregnancies.

Statewide Requirement

But the law requires that the jobs program be offered statewide. And the regulations state that because there are high schools statewide, states can rely on their schools to provide at least a minimal jobs program.

Rather than incur the costs of establishing alternative programs, many states are undoubtedly going to turn to regular high schools and the adult-basic-education system, welfare administrators said.

Still, adjustments have to be made in those systems in order to serve the population targeted by the law, said Mr. Brohinsky of the Connecticut Department of Education. A teen parent who has dropped out will need remediation upon returning to school, he said.

Educators also will have to work closely with social-service workers because the law requires periodic progress reports on each participant.

"At a time when states are under fiscal constraints, where are the resources to make the necessary adjustments to the education system going to come from?" asked Mr. Brohinsky.

Welfare administrators also expressed concern about turning to the adult-education system, which in many communities is underfunded, staffed by volunteers, and unprepared for the huge wave of students that could want to come into the system, they said.

Not a 'First Priority'

In many states, such as Connecticut and Florida, the majority of adult-education programs are operated by local school districts.

"That can be a problem," said Ms. Aronson, "because a local school district doesn't always place funding for these programs as a first priority."

Mr. Brohinsky concurred. "Not only are funding and staffing a problem, but many of our school districts have very little space for these programs and can only offer them at limited times."

"So, is it back to high school, where the teen parent may not want to be, or do we send them to an adjunct system that may not be well-funded or able to handle the influx?" asked Ms. Aronson.

The problems cry out for creative solutions, welfare administrators said.

In Alabama, for example, officials are considering a degree-equivalency program to be offered on public television. According to David Owens, who is coordinating the implementation of the new law there, the idea could solve both the child-care and the transportation problem.

"We would provide assessments, materials, and testing, but the mother would take the classes in her own home," Mr. Owens said.

The key to finding such solutions is collaboration, according to Ms. Levy of nasbe.

"We have started to see collaboration between the education and the social-service sector," she said. "Now, we have a real structured opportunity to come together in strong ways around issues each see as important."

Mr. Laracy of New Jersey agreed. "Welfare reform is going to require a much higher degree of collaboration," he said. "I don't think anyone anticipated the degree to which welfare reform would also drive reform in education, child care, and employment training."

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