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Wis. Learnfare Violates Law, Parents Allege

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The way Wisconsin administers its pioneering Learnfare program is unconstitutional, six families are arguing in a federal lawsuit.

One of the first state measures of its kind, the program cuts the welfare benefits of families whose teenage children have unexcused school absences.

The suit, filed this month, charges that Learnfare is discriminatory because the method for recording attendance varies among the state's school districts.

It also contends that the program should adhere to standards in the federal welfare-reform law, which directs states to set up Job Opportunity and Basic Skills programs.

"Since the passage of the new federal law, Learnfare participants have essentially become jobs participants, and therefore they are entitled to the same services," said Patricia DeLessio, a lawyer for Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., which is representing the families.

She said that in order for Learnfare to meet the federal standards, local social-service officials would have to determine that students missed school "without good cause" before benefits could be reduced. Currently, welfare agencies rely solely on school-attendance records in determining sanctions.

The federal law also entitles Learnfare participants to assessments and support services, she said.

Milwaukee families are particularly vulnerable to the law, Ms. DeLessio maintained, because the school district has a system for unexcused absences that differs from those of many other districts in the state.

"For example, if a child's parents phoned about an absence, but did not send a letter within 48 hours, then he is marked in the unexcused-absence category," she said. "Other districts do not have that policy."

The lawyer said the plaintiffs were seeking class-action status for the case to represent all families in Milwaukee affected by the program.

Ms. DeLessio said the firm was negotiating with the state on some of these issues. If an agreement is not reached, the plaintiffs will ask for an injunction to stop the sanctions until the court rules in the case.

Officials of the Department of Health and Social Services could not be reached for comment last week.


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