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Learnfare Has Little Effect On School Attendance

A well-known Wisconsin program that cuts the benefits of welfare families if their teenagers fail to attend school got poor marks recently from state auditors, who found that the program did virtually nothing to improve school attendance.

Under the six-year-old Learnfare program, families receiving money under the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children program are subject to, on average, $130 a month in deductions from their welfare checks if their teenage children skip school. Teenage parents who are themselves welfare recipients are also subject to the penalty.

After evaluating the program for three semesters, the legislative audit bureau found that the financial penalties had "no detectable effect on school participation."

The program cost $11.8 million to administer last year.

But Kevin Keane, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, said that Learnfare has cut the number of teenage parents who remain on welfare.

"The governor never suggested Learnfare was a silver bullet," Mr. Keane said. "As long as families are leaving welfare, it's a stretch to say it isn't working."

Another Charter Bill

Florida would become the 22nd state to allow the privately run public schools known as charter schools, under a bill the legislature recently sent to Gov. Lawton Chiles.

The Democratic governor supports the measure, but had not decided last week whether to sign it or let it take effect on July 1 without his signature.

Parents, teachers, companies, or other groups could apply to their local school boards for charters to run schools, which would have to be nonsectarian and nonprofit.

The bill would cap the number of charter schools in each district, with the limit varying according to enrollment. Districts could ask the state to waive the cap.

Given projected enrollment for the coming school year, about 240 new charter schools could be created statewide under the measure, and an equal number of existing schools could be converted to charter schools. To convert to charter status under the bill, half of the parents and teachers at a school would have to support the change.

Leftover School Aid

If Maine lawmakers convene a special session to consider forestry policies, they also may decide what to do with about $1.6 million in leftover state education aid.

Maine often ends up its fiscal year with excess funds, due primarily to the legislature's practice of appropriating subsidies for local bonds based on estimated interest rates before local municipalities hold their elections. Money is left over when interest rates fluctuate or bond referendums fail.

Lawmakers can earmark the funds for other school programs or add it to the state's general fund.

Some lawmakers would like to ensure that the excess money is distributed to the state's 284 school districts each year.

"If it's earmarked to go to local municipalities for education, then that's where it should go, and if we need to craft language to make that happen, we should do it," said Rep. Wendy L. Ault, a Republican.

The state's current budget for education is about $534 million.

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