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Thompson Seeks To Expand Learnfare Into Early Grades

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Federal authorities have cleared the way for Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin to seek expansion of a controversial program that allows the state to cut welfare benefits to parents of children who do not attend school regularly.

The Governor last week announced plans to introduce legislation in January that would expand the Learnfare program to include all school-age children, beginning at age 6. Currently, the program only affects families with children between the ages of 13 and 19.

In 1988, Wisconsin became the first state to institute a program of sanctions on recipients of federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children payments whose teenage children are truant or drop out of school.

Since then, several other states--including Florida, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Ohio--have linked public assistance to school attendance.

If Mr. Thompson's proposal is approved by the legislature next year, Wisconsin could also become thestate to apply the program to families with elementary-school children. Michigan lawmakers are currently considering a similar proposal targeting children ages 6 through 18.

Despite the go-ahead from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services--which agreed to Mr. Thompson's proposal with certain conditions--Wisconsin legislators are expecting a rancorous debate on the Learnfare expansion.

Effectiveness Doubted

Learnfare opponents have attacked it as both unfair and ineffective. It singles out poor families for punishment but leaves other parents of truants or dropouts untouched, they argue, and is too harsh on parents who may not be able to control their adolescent children.

Critics also cite a recent report by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, which found that the program often does not achieve its goal of getting students to return to school. (See Education Week, April 4, 1990.)

The researchers concluded that only 28 percent of the students whose families were disciplined under Learnfare were regularly attending school two months after their last sanctions. Earlier state estimates had put that figure at 70 percent.

About 2,200 of the estimated 30,000 youths whose families receive afdc benefits have been penalized each month since the program started, according to state officials.

But Joseph A. Stohl, the Senate majority leader and a supporter of the program, called the estimated 28 percent return rate "a major accomplishment."

Even so, he acknowledged, "if a vote on the expansion proposal was taken today, it would not pass."

Extra Help Sought

Those who question expanding Learnfare to cover the elementary grades also suggest that such young children should be offered incentives to stay in school, rather than sanctions for failing to do so.

Silvia R. Jackson, administrator of the state office that operates the Learnfare program, explained that the federal waiver was granted on the condition that state officials offer more services to help families keep their children in school.

Under the agreement, federal officials approved matching grants of up to $10 million for the development of case-management services, including family counseling, alternative education, drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment, child-abuse andlect prevention, and day care.

The legislature last week earmarked $500,000 in the budget for the services, to be matched with federal grants for a total of $1 million. A separate grant of $1 million in state and federal funds also was awarded to the Milwaukee schools to set up alternative-education programs for youths covered by Learnfare.

The legislation that the Governor plans to propose next year will allow parents who seek such help an exemption from economic sanctions for up to a year, Ms. Jackson said.

Benefits would be cut each month for parents who refused to get help.

While many opponents of the plan said the services would be welcome, they also called for an end to the sanctions under the plan.

Lawsuit Pending

More than 20 church and civic organizations sent letters to federal officials asking them to oppose the Learnfare expansion, and to insist on major changes in the program.

A lawsuit filed last November by Legal Action of Wisconsin, a federally funded legal-defense group, seeks to block use of the sanctions in Milwaukee, where many of the families penalized under the law live.

Patricia DeLessio, an attorney representing a group of Milwaukee families in the suit, maintained that the program violates requirements of the federal welfare-reform law of 1988, as well as certain constitutional protections.

The lawsuit contends that students should be allowed unexcused absences "for good cause," because the reform law allows adults to miss work for that reason in "workfare" job-training programs.

Ms. DeLessio also argued that parents are not given adequate notice of impending sanctions.

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