Attempts To Punish Parents Are Deemed Ineffective

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Two of Wisconsin's widely noted attempts to use financial sanctions to attack educational and other social ills are not achieving their aims, new studies suggest.

The state's Learnfare program--which ties welfare benefits for teenage parents and families with teenage children to school attendance--has spurred relatively few truants and dropouts to return to school, according to one report.

Wisconsin in 1988 became the first of a number of states to adopt a Learnfare-type program.

And a separate study has raised doubts about the effectiveness of the state's abortion-prevention law, which contains a provision holding parents liable for the costs of raising the offspring of their own dependent children.

A report released last month by the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee found that only 28 percent of the students whose families were disciplined under Learnfare were4regularly attending school two months after their last sanction.

Last fall, an internal state audit had indicated that the ratio of returning students was about 38 percent, while earlier state estimates had put the figure at 70 percent. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

The report studied only those families penalized under the program in Milwaukee County. These youths numbered 6,612; statewide, 8,968 teenagers belonged to family units that were penalized under the law.

The study, which was conducted from September 1988 through December 1989, found that teenage parents were even less likely to have returned to school under Learnfare than were teenage dependents.

Only one-fifth of teenage parents were attending school regularly two months after being penalized under Learnfare. Additionally, 35 percent of adolescent parents had received exemptions from school attendance.

Lois Quinn, one of the study's authors, explained that the law allows teenage parents to receive exemptions if school officials determine that they are unlikely to graduate by age 20. This may account for teenage parents' lower rate of return, she said.

In a related action, the legislature has passed a $1-million bill that would provide case-management services and alternative-education programs for those who lose benefits under Learnfare. But it is uncertain whether Gov. Tommy G. Thompson will sign the measure, according to the bill's sponsor, Representative Barbara Notestein.

The other report, by the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, argues that a 1985 state law designed to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies has had little effect.

"It is questionable whether the programs created or amended by the act have had a discernible effect on the act's broad goals of reducing the number of teen pregnancies and reducing the number of abortions," says the report, which was released in February.

Little Change Seen

The state's adolescent birthrate of 38.9 births per 1,000 women "has not changed materially" since the act's passage, the study notes.

The law created a statewide adoption center, established a state board to provide grants to local pregnancy-prevention programs, and required schools to develop sex-education curricula.

But the law's most controversial provision was the one holding grandparents financially responsible for their teenage children's children.

The Grandparent Liability Program "has not achieved a major objective intended by its proponents," the report says.

Grandparents are rarely held liable for the support of their grandchildren, it says, noting that only 13 of 447 potential cases resulted in court-ordered support.

The report suggests that the "low priority among most district attorneys" for such cases accounts for the lack of enforcement of this provision.

The report also notes that "many school districts have not developed a comprehensive human-growth and development curriculum."

Only 23.5 percent of the state's junior-high schools use the curriculum recommended by the law, it says. Another 26.6 percent teach some of the suggested courses.

In a letter responding to the report, Superintendent of Public Instruction Herbert J. Grover said he agreed with most of the report's conclusions.

But he noted that a district's compliance with the law is voluntary unless it receives state funds for a human-growth and development curriculum.

Vol. 09, Issue 28

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