Rewards, Penalties for Attendance Benefit Teenage Parents
An Ohio program that raises or lowers the welfare grants of teenage parents based on their school attendance has shown "early success'' in keeping students in school and coaxing dropouts to resume their studies, a new study suggests.
An interim study to be released this week by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a welfare-research group, concedes that it is unclear whether the program will bolster earnings and stem welfare dependency "down the road.''
But the positive early evidence, it concludes, should "help inform the search for effective policy approaches'' toward women who give birth as teenagers, who often become long-term welfare recipients.
Since Wisconsin established its Learnfare program in 1987 and the federal government passed the Family Support Act in 1988, a number of states have adopted welfare policies promoting "responsible'' behaviors, including school completion.
Learnfare-type programs reduce welfare benefits to families whose teenage children are truant from school, while the federal law requires recipients to pursue education, job training, or employment in exchange for benefits.
In contrast, Ohio's Learning, Earning, and Parenting program ties both rewards and sanctions to attendance.
Full-time high school students get a $62 bonus or a $62 deduction from their monthly welfare grants--about $280 for a parent living with one child--depending on whether they have no more than four absences per month, with two or fewer unexcused absences. Those who exceed the allowed number of absences but not the allowed number of unexcused absences get neither a bonus nor a deduction.
Participants have case managers to help them overcome barriers to attendance, and are eligible for child-care and transportation aid.
The statewide program has reached 20,000 teenage parents since it was enacted in 1989. The M.D.R.C. study is based on a random sample of 7,000 participants in seven diverse counties.
'Substantial Progress' Found
The study showed that within 18 months of becoming eligible for LEAP, 75 percent of the teenagers studied had earned at least one bonus, while 56 percent had been referred for at least one sanction.
The program has made "substantial progress'' toward its goals, the study found. Among the teenage parents who were already in school when LEAP took effect, 61.3 percent either remained enrolled or had graduated within 12 months after becoming eligible, compared with 51.1 percent of a control group. Among dropouts, 46.8 percent of the program group enrolled in a high school or adult-education program, compared with 33.4 percent of the control group.
The study suggests that LEAP has already improved the graduation rates of teenage parents and produced a "small but statistically significant increase'' in the proportion taking and passing the General Educational Development test.
But those findings are "necessarily preliminary'' because only about half the teenagers studied were old enough to have completed school, notes the study, which adds that "it is unclear whether impacts on school completion will translate into longer-term effects on employment, earnings, or welfare receipt.''
The data also suggest LEAP was relatively unsuccessful in changing the behavior of long-term dropouts, who even when resuming their studies "rarely attended regular high schools.''
While the program appeared to boost the attendance of students attending regular high schools, the attendance rates of participants enrolled in adult-education programs were lower than the control group's.
Additional Services Urged
Citing a survey showing that many students either fear for their safety in school or do not feel welcome as teenage parents, the study hints that more school-based interventions--such as a state program that now offers services to teenage parents in about 500 schools--are needed.
The report also highlights problems LEAP has faced in identifying eligible teenagers, monitoring attendance, applying sanctions, and processing grant adjustments. But it says a new computerized reporting system has helped implementation.
Wisconsin had to improve its recordkeeping procedures in response to a legal challenge to Learnfare, and a large-scale study has cast doubt on the program's effectiveness. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992.)
The findings on LEAP, the M.D.R.C. study suggests, reflect a "policy package'' that includes bonuses as well as sanctions and offers other support services.
"The results in this report don't speak to the effectiveness of programs that include only part of this package,'' said David Long, the director of the M.D.R.C. study.
Copies of the report, "Interim Findings on a Welfare Initiative To Improve School Attendance Among Teenage Parents: Ohio's Learning, Earning, and Parenting Program,'' are available for $12 each from the Publications Department, M.D.R.C., 3 Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.