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Learnfare's Services for Truants Not Often Tapped

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Relatively few students use the case-management services aimed at helping truant students stay in school under Wisconsin's Learnfare program, a study shows.

Learnfare, established in 1987, was the first state program to cut the welfare benefits of families whose children have poor school attendance. A few more states have adopted this approach, and others considering welfare reforms are watching the program.

The program penalizes families whose 13- to 19-year-old children have more than two unexcused school absences in a month. But it gives students at risk of sanctions the opportunity to work with case managers to identify the causes of their poor attendance and to help link them to services such as child care, transportation, and alternative-education programs.

The evaluation of Learnfare's case-management component, released last month, estimates that in 10 sample counties, only 14 percent of eligible students responded to an offer of case management.

The Legislative Audit Bureau, a nonpartisan agency that audits state programs for the legislature, conducted the study.

The study found that poor attendance made 4,700 teenagers a "priority'' for case-management services in the 10 counties sampled, which received a total of nearly $2.2 million in state, federal, and local funds to offer the services.

Forms offering case management that were sent to those teenagers "rarely'' drew a response, the study found, and while eight of the 10 counties followed up with letters, calls, or home visits, "the number and the quality of these efforts vary among counties and case managers.''

Kenosha County, which had a response rate of 34 percent, the highest in the study, did more outreach at the outset, the report says, and "benefited from a well-developed network of service agencies'' for consultation and referral.

Implementation Problems

When students responded, other counties appeared to do a good job of "sitting down and trying to identify problems and solutions'' and did not seem stymied by a lack of resources, Judith Frye, an assistant state auditor who directed the study, noted.

She said, however, that "until you get them in, there is not much hope you will be able to expect changes in their behavior.''

The report attributes the low response in part to a lack of understanding of the program, few incentives among the most "dissatisfied'' students to return to school, and the fact that some may have received other truancy services that they did not find helpful.

But it also cites "weaknesses'' in how counties deliver services and says two "major barriers'' were inadequate coordination of Learnfare services with schools and inadequate guidance on defining case-management services.

The program was designed to give counties flexibility in how they implement services, which "was a good idea originally, so we could have experimentation,'' said Rep. Kimberly Plache of Racine, a Democrat who co-chairs the joint legislative committee that ordered the study. But "it is time to work with the counties that have not been very successful and improve their use of the Learnfare program,'' she said.

Besides spreading the word about successful approaches, Ms. Frye said, "the state needs to do more to define what counties ought to do, and counties need to make sure contracts they sign have more specificity.''

The state department of health and social services took a significant step last month, Ms. Frye said, by producing the "Learnfare Case Management Manual,'' which is being distributed to counties.

The department's secretary, Gerald Whitburn, said the evaluation showed "encouraging signs that case management is effective when it is carried through.''

"The challenge is to persuade more teens and their families to participate, but we cannot realistically expect every eligible teen to want to,'' he said.

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