Little Impact Found Tying Welfare, Attendance

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A nationally known Wisconsin program that cuts welfare benefits to families when their teenage children skip school is doing little to boost attendance rates, according to a fourth and final state audit of the initiative.

Known as Learnfare, the pilot program begun in 1988 aims to promote school enrollment and improve attendance among 13- to 19-year-olds in families that received Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the main program of public assistance.

In an effort to identify and address problems early, Learnfare limits grants to families when children's school attendance is unsatisfactory.

While officials at the state auditor's office stand behind their pronouncement that Learnfare is having little impact, others, including the governor, have dismissed the audit.

"We think they're missing the forest for the trees. They're so focused on the bureaucracy that they are ignoring the real results--it is succeeding in keeping kids in school," Kevin Keane, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, said of the auditors. "They are treating Learnfare as a silver bullet, but it was never made out to be that --it was one of many programs to help people escape the trap of welfare."

Wisconsin was the first state to implement a program such as Learnfare, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based clearinghouse for education information. Twenty-six other states now run similar programs, according to the ECS.

That doesn't mean everyone outside Wisconsin is sold on such efforts. Mike Tanner, the director of health and welfare at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, echoed the Wisconsin auditors, saying in an interview that there is no evidence that programs like Learnfare have any significant impact.

Conflicting Views

Learnfare works this way: If a teenager chalks up 20 or more days of unexcused absences in a month, his or her family sees its welfare payment reduced. A family with three children receiving a monthly payment of $517 would lose an average of $170. Teenage parents who are themselves welfare recipients are also subject to the penalty.

State auditors studied teenagers' enrollment, attendance, unexcused absences, and high school graduation rates, as well as the amount of AFDC benefits families received. After a three-semester evaluation, the auditors found that Learnfare made no significant impact on graduation rates and no significant difference in the amount of AFDC received by Learnfare families as compared with non-Learnfare families.

Students in 10 counties had been randomly assigned by the state to the Learnfare program.

"The report speaks for itself," said Jan Mueller, a spokeswoman for the state auditor's office, which released similar findings in an audit last year.

Nevertheless, officials with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which administers the program, have dismissed the audit's findings.

"The fact is, in Milwaukee, we've seen a drop in dropout rates," said David Blaska, a spokesman for the department. "We think Learnfare is a major reason for that."

Over the past two years of the program, the Milwaukee public schools' dropout rate has fallen from 15.4 percent to 9.9 percent, according to the department. In the past year, of the system's 476 dropouts who were referred to Learnfare, 306 have re-enrolled in school, the state agency says.

"Learnfare has absolutely had an impact and has certainly contributed to the decrease in our dropout rates," added Willie Little, the director of Learnfare operations for the 103,670-student Milwaukee district.

Program Will Continue

Despite questions about whether Learnfare really works, the program--which costs $2.6 million each year to run--will continue under Wisconsin Works, a new welfare program that the state will launch in September.

"I think there are a lot of kids that would have been lost without [Learnfare], and the governor's attitude is, if it helps 10 kids, it's worth it," Mr. Keane, the spokesman for Gov. Thompson, said.

"Learnfare stands on the principle that students should be in school," Mr. Keane added. "If they're not, then we're saying that there will be a consequence."

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