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Learnfare Fails To Boost Attendance, New Study Finds

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Learnfare, Wisconsin's pioneering effort to link public assistance to school attendance, has not resulted in improved attendance among students whose families are on welfare, the first comprehensive study of the program has found.

The federally commissioned study, released this month, has drawn criticism from state and federal officials, who question some of its research methods and argue that some of the data do not support its conclusions. The Wisconsin secretary of health and social services also has called it "biased" from a liberal perspective.

Nevertheless, the study by the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is believed to be the most thorough examination so far of a program linking welfare benefits to school attendance, a concept already adopted in Ohio and being eyed by several other states.

It also comes at a time when Wisconsin is considering expanding Learnfare, and as a number of states are looking at other welfare reforms aimed at modifying behaviors seen as perpetuating the cycle of dependency. (See related story below.)

The intent of Learnfare, which was passed by the Wisconsin legislature in 1987 and launched in 1988, is to improve school attendance and high-school completion by teenagers whose families are on welfare.

Under Learnfare, welfare families are subject to having their checks cut when teenagers have more than two unexcused absences from school a month. The deduction for a family of four receiving a monthly grant of $617 would be about $100.

Although the program now applies to 13- to 19-year-olds, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson has proposed extending it to children ages 6 to 12.

Attendance Gains Not Found

As a condition for extending a waiver of regulation that was granted to the state to launch the program, the federal government required a study of its impact.

The study by the E.T.I. examined the school-attendance patterns of over 50,000 teenagers in the Milwaukee public schools and 6,000 students in five other schools said to represent the rest of the state.

Researchers also compared the attendance rates of students whose families receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits with those of teenagers formerly on A.F.D.c.

"We did not find an increase in attendance attributable to Learnfare either in Milwaukee or any of the other districts," said Lois Quinn, a senior research scientist at the E.T.L.

The study revealed that one year after Learnfare began, one-third of the students involved had improved attendance, while more than half had poorer attendance. It also showed that in each of the three school years under Learnfare, the two largest districts showed dropout rates well above 20 percent. After a second year of Learnfare, moreover, the share of students with worse attendance rose in the three largest districts.

Over the three years of the Learnfare program, the study showed, the percentage of Milwaukee teenagers with excessive absences continued to rise. More than 30 percent of city teenagers subject to Learnfare missed more than 20 days of school in the fall semester, while over 40 percent had excessive absences in the spring. Although attendance rates varied in the other districts, the researchers did not find any improvement attributable to Learnfare after controlling for other variables.

The high-school-graduation rate for Milwaukee teenagers subject to Loam fare who began high school in the 1987-1988 school year was about 18 percent--the same as for the control group of former A.F.D.C. teenagers not subject to Learnfare, the study notes. In the second-largest district, the graduation rate was 48 percent for the Learnfare group and 49 percent for the control group.

Among teenage parents in the Milwaukee schools, nearly half were not subject to Loam fare. Of those who were, less than half were enrolled in school, the report indicates, and from 51 percent to 57 percent were penalized each semester.

'Cup Half Empty'

In a statement responding to the report, Secretary of Health and Social Services Gerald Whitburn faulted its analysis and tone and said it "buried" key outcomes, such as a finding that attendance generally improved among "almost all Learnfare subpopulations" between the first and second year of the program.

That passage in the report also points out, however, that the share of students with improved attendance was lowest among families whose benefits were cut.

"To E.T.I. the cup was always half empty and never half full ," said Jean Rogers, administrator of the department's division of economic support. She called the finding that a third of A.F.D.c. teenagers in the study had improved attendance after a year of Learnfare "pretty phenomenal."

She also cited as "a win for Learnfare" the fact that A.F.D.C. teenagers subject to sanctions graduated from high school at about the same rate as the students no longer on A.F.D.C.

"We're looking at the most difficult group to serve, so for any statistics to show this group is doing as well as the control group is a real plus," she said.

Mr. Whitburn also cast the report as a "faulted, biased product" and said that "hiring E.T.I., a liberal boutique, to do this evaluation is like retaining Ted Kennedy's staff to draft Pat Buchanan's campaign announcement."

The study began stirring controversy before its release, when some lawmakers and advocacy groups suggested the state was delaying it for fear of negative repercussions.

The E.T.I. initially submitted its report in time to meet the federal deadline of Dec. 31. But the state raised several concerns about the report and asked for a revision.

After consulting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Ms. Rogers received a letter from Jo Ann B. Barnhart, assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families, echoing the state's concerns and requesting a revised report within two months. In addition to some criticisms of the research design, the letter said the study did not adequately analyze Learnfare's effect on attendance or other factors affecting attendance.

E.T.L'S final version of the study, submitted on Feb. 6., "incorporated a number of changes and suggestions, but not all of it," said Ms. Quinn. "We welcomed the state's suggestions."

But Mr. Whitburn said state and federal officials may reconsider paying the E.T.I.. to complete work on the ongoing Learnfare study.

Some Learnfare critics, such as Assemblyman Rebecca Young, a Democrat, called the state's response to the study a case of "If you don't like the message, shoot the messenger."

While it is unclear what effect it will ultimately have on Learnfare, she said, the study "will have an impact on the legislature."

"Those not wedded to dogma," Ms. Young said, "are not about to expand programs in the face of evidence that they are not working."

"From all the evidence we have so far, it has not accomplished any of its goals, and it has created enormous hardships," she added.

But Assemblyman John Gard, a Republican, said that while the E.T.I. study "makes everybody step and look at [Loam fare], it won't make me or most of the legislators I know abandon support for it."

"if the vote were today" on expanding the program, Mr. Gard predicted, "it would pass two to one."

"I don't think anybody expected success overnight," he said. "But there are people it's going to help, and that's what we're after."

He also suggested that the study could bolster arguments for beginning Learnfare at earlier ages, when it is "much easier to build behavior patterns."

But Patricia DeLessio, a staff lawyer with Legal Action of Wisconsin, argued that the state spends too much to verify attendance and arrange sanctions under Learnfare and too little to "improve opportunities in the inner cities."

In response to a lawsuit brought by Legal Action, a federal judge suspended Learnfare in the Milwaukee schools from July to October 1990. The lawsuit, which charged that inaccurate recordkeeping was causing families to be unfairly sanctioned, prompted officials to set up more sophisticated procedures for verifying attendance. (See Education Week, Sept. 5, 1990.)

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