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Wis. Takes Steps To Counter Criticisms of Learnfare

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Wisconsin officials told a federal judge last month that they have made significant progress in resolving the issues that led him to issue an injunction halting sanctions against Milwaukee welfare recipients whose children do not attend school regularly.

Under the Learnfare program, the first of several state programs linking public assistance to school attendance, families receiving welfare benefits are penalized when teenagers have more than two unexcused absences from school a month. About $100 is deducted from the average $517-a-month welfare payment.

Milwaukee County accounts for nearly half the students subject to Learnfare and 75 percent of the sanctions imposed so far.

Charging that inaccurate procedures used to check student absences made the sanctions unfair in some cases, U.S. District Judge Terence T. Evans in July ordered the suspension of Learnfare in the Milwaukee Public Schools. The program has remained in effect in the rest of the state. (See Education, Aug. 1, 1990.)

At an Aug. 16 hearing to gauge plaintiffs' progress in addressing objections raised in the preliminary injunction, state and county officials agreed to verify student attendance records submitted by the Milwaukee schools and to ensure that absences were not for a legitimate cause before cutting welfare benefits.

Officials also agreed to send preliminary notices advising the families of truant students that they were being monitored for possible sanctions.

The Milwaukee school system, meanwhile, has called on school administrators to monitor and review procedures for verifying attendance.

Although Judge Evans did not schedule another hearing until Jan. 8, he indicated he was "impressed" with the discussions already under way and invited the parties to come forth sooner if they have made more progress.

State officials appeared optimistic that the injunction could be lifted as soon as November, in time for the first round of sanctions against students who are truant in the new school year.

"I am quite confident that the injunction will be lifted in time for the Learnfare program to begin operating in Milwaukee again on the same schedule as if the injunction had never been offered," said Edward Marion, chief legal counsel for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services.

Negotiations continued last month, meanwhile, over efforts by the county to set up a network of case managers to provide social services and other resources to help keep students subject to Learnfare in school.

The state legislature is expected this winter to consider a proposal by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson to expand the two-year-old Learnfare program, which now applies only to 13- to 19-year-olds, to all school-age children in families receiving welfare.

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