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Analysis Questions Reports of Success Of Learnfare Effort

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Wisconsin officials may have overestimated the success of their nationally recognized Learnfare program, an internal state analysis has suggested.

The year-old program was the first of a number of efforts by states to reduce the dropout rate by tying welfare benefits for families with teenage children to school attendance.

In an August report on the program, state officials said that benefits had been reinstated for nearly 70 percent of families who had been penalized for student absenteeism. A "vast majority" of those students had returned to school, the report stated.

But a more recent memorandum written by a state research analyst indicates that the actual proportion of students returning to school and attending regularly may be closer to 38 percent--about half the proportion that had been cited earlier.

Meanwhile, a new study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has raised questions about the cost-effectiveness of Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's proposal to expand Learnfare to include younger students.

The study found that younger children of welfare families miss only slightly more school than children of families not receiving public assistance.

Currently, Learnfare only applies to students ages 13 through 19.

Governor Thompson plans to introduce legislation this week to expand the program to children ages 6 through 12, according to a spokesman.

At least five other states--Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, and North Carolina--have linked public assistance to school attendance, and several others are considering similar plans.

Success Rate Questioned

The Wisconsin program, which began in September 1988, reduces welfare benefits by an average of $100 a month to families in which a teenager has more than two unexcused absences a month from school.

After the August data were released, state officials declared the program a success. That report said that 92 percent of children from families on welfare had complied with the law and were not sanctioned.

Of the 7,234 students whose families were sanctioned, roughly two-thirds had the penalties lifted within three months due to regular school attendance, the state reported.

But some local school officials were immediately skeptical. Attendance patterns are often erratic, they noted, and students can easily meet the law's requirement by bringing notes from their parents after an absence.

Those doubts were reinforced last month when the memo--attributed to Carol Weidel, a research analyst with the state department of health and social services, and obtained by The Milwaukee Journal--took issue with the reported success rate.

In her memo to the office of welfare reform, Ms. Weidel said there could be several reasons penalties were lifted other than regular school attendance.

For example, a family could have moved off the welfare rolls altogether, she noted, or a student could have passed the age to qualify for Learnfare.

The memo also said that officials should not have based their conclusions about the program's success on information about all 7,234 students of families that lost benefits. Instead, it argued, officials should have focused on a smaller group of 3,233 teenagers whose behavior was followed for at least four consecutive months.

Of that smaller group, 53.9 percent had returned to school within three months, but only 37.9 percent were still attending classes regularly after three months, according to the memo.

Ms. Weidel was unavailable last week for comment. But Silvia Jackson, head of the division of economic support, agreed that of the 70 percent of students in families who had regained their benefits, not all had returned to school.

Ms. Jackson said that when the 70 percent figure was reported, "we had not interpreted the data." The department is in the process of analyzing the data for the various reasons benefits were restored, she noted, in hopes of getting a clearer picture of the law's effect on attendance.

"Even if it is 40 percent who are attending school more regularly," Ms. Jackson added, "then we have reached a large number of kids who weren't in school before the program."

Despite questions about the success rate of Learnfare, Governor Thompson appears committed to pushing the program forward.

"The Governor believes that Learnfare has played a role in getting students back to school," said Stephanie Smith, his deputy press secretary.

Ms. Smith said a thorough analysis of Learnfare cannot be made until independent research on the first three years of the program is completed. Even so, she added, Mr. Thompson wants to move ahead with the expansion now.

"By starting in the earlier grades, we are hoping to develop the habit of going to school," she said.

Little Difference in Early Grades

The study by the u.m.w.'s Urban Research Center contends, however, that welfare children in grades 2 through 5 are likely to miss only three more days of school each year than are other children.

Researchers based their estimate on an analysis of attendance records for 6,900 Milwaukee public-school students who were in kindergarten through 5th grade between 1981 and 1987. Much of the data could be obtained only at individual schools.

Because the difference is so small and because all elementary attendance data are kept at the school level and are not computerized, the report concludes the difference is not large enough to justify the expense incurred in establishing new monitoring procedures.

The money would be better spent "to enhance education and not to monitor mere attendance," the report argues.

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