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Federal Judge Halts Learnfare for Milwaukee Pupils

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A federal judge has at least temporarily halted sanctions against Milwaukee welfare recipients whose children do not attend school regularly, citing problems in the way school-attendance records are kept.

The ruling was directed at Wisconsin's Learnfare program, which cuts welfare benefits to families whose teenage children are truant or drop out of school. Since Wisconsin adopted the program in 1988, six other states have moved to link public assistance to school attendance.

The Learnfare program, which targets the families of teenagers who have more than two unexcused absences a month from school, imposes an average penalty of about $120 a month per family.

U.S. District Judge Terence T. Evans granted a preliminary injunction July 10 to halt the sanctions at the request of Legal Action of Wisconsin, a legal-defense group that filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of six families whose benefits had been cut.

The ruling applies only to families with teenage students in the Milwaukee public schools.

The suit alleges that Learnfare sanctions violate federal welfare law and the due-process clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Judge Evans agreed with the plaintiffs' claims that procedures used by Milwaukee schools to determine why a child was absent "may be too inaccurate to satisfy the good-cause requirements" of federal welfare law.

He also agreed that notices sent to parents to inform them of attendance-related penalties "provide very little information to the recipient to challenge the correctness of a sanction" and may violate their constitutional rights. Even a delay in benefits pending a hearing could cause "irreparable harm" to welfare recipients, the judge maintained.

"This is a situation where the survival and the dignity of individuals and families are involved," he said.

Judge Evans indicated, however, that he would lift the injunction if the defendants, who include officials of the state Department of Health and Social Services and the Milwaukee County Department of Social Services, submit acceptable proposals to improve attendance-monitoring and notification procedures. He set an Aug. 14 date for discussion of further proceedings.

The ruling came a week after the state's Legislative Audit Bureau issued a lengthy report citing "significant weaknesses" in the administration of Learnfare in Milwaukee County. It noted that sanctions were not upheld in 84 percent of 185 cases in which recipients filed appeals.

The report cited inaccurate record-keeping by the Milwaukee schools and inadequate follow-up by county welfare workers.

'Underpinnings' Unaffected

"We clearly recognize that there is some difficulty in the record-keeping and in the reporting," said C. David Begel, the district's public-affairs director. "We're willing to work with anybody to reach some kind of resolution," he said. District and dhss officials began discussions last week.

Because 48 percent of the 30,000 students subject to Learnfare sanc4tions live in Milwaukee County, the program's fate there could affect debate next year on Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's proposal to apply the program to all school-age children in families receiving welfare. It now applies only to 13- to 19-year-olds.

But state officials say the ruling is not an indictment of Learnfare sanctions.

The injunction "did not address in any way the policy underpinnings or the substance of the program," said Waltraud A. Arts, an assistant attorney general.

In a news release following the audit report, Patricia A. Goodrich, secretary of health and social services, faulted poor record-keeping by the Milwaukee schools.

"The answer is not to put Learnfare out to pasture but to get Milwaukee's public schools back in the harness," she said.

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