Truancy Punishment Hitting Home : Education: Wisconsin cuts welfare benefits to a family if a student is absent without reason. But the approach is being called "mean-spirited."

TIMES STAFF WRITER

On paper, Sonjia Lowe says it probably looked like a good idea. Plenty of students, in theory, would think twice about skipping school if they thought it would create a financial hardship for their families.

In practice, though, Lowe said Wisconsin's Learnfare program--which holds just such a threat over the heads of 30,000 students--has been "just a big mess."

She has firsthand knowledge.

Over the past year Lowe, the mother of three high school students, says she has been repeatedly penalized by the 2-year-old program, even when her children did not miss school.

She said the penalties sometimes cost her nearly half of the $617 in welfare benefits she gets each month, taking food off her table, causing her telephone to be disconnected and almost causing her gas to be shut off--all because of administrative mistakes.

These are the sort of horrors critics had predicted of the experimental and nationally watched program, which is designed over the long run to decrease welfare dependency in Wisconsin by keeping children on welfare in school.

Under Learnfare, students who have attendance problems and who are receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children are monitored. After two unexcused absences, the child is removed from the family's AFDC grant, reducing payments by an average $150 for each month the absences occur.

Although Lowe successfully appealed the sanctions applied against her benefits, she said her experience with Learnfare has convinced her the program is cruel and unfair. "I think it's wrong for them to punish the whole family for one child," she said. "Parents and social services should work with children (who have chronic truancy problems) to keep them in school, but to take the money which is providing food and shelter, that is just cruel."

Hailed by some state officials two years ago when it was rushed into effect as a revolutionary way to break the cycle of poverty, Learnfare provoked a storm of protest from educators and others who said it would impose needless hardships on families that can least afford it while burdening the state's largest school districts. Now, as the state is considering expanding the program, with some modifications, for the first time to all school grades, the controversy continues unabated.

"Learnfare has not been a successful experiment," said Mayor John Norquist of Milwaukee, where 73.7% of the state's 8,969 Learnfare sanctions have been applied. Officials say schools in Milwaukee have been beset with record-keeping problems, inundated with appeals and burdened by the lack of funds for adequate social services. "It has been almost an entirely punitive program," Norquist said.

Other critics in this traditionally progressive state have blasted Learnfare as "mean-spirited" and anti-poor.

Nevertheless, Gov. Tommy G. Thompson and state officials charged with administering Learnfare say that it is working.

"I don't think it's mean-spirited to try to keep youngsters in school," said Patricia A. Goodrich, secretary of Wisconsin's Department of Health and Social Services.

The philosophy behind the program is simple: "(Welfare) recipients have an obligation to society in return for the assistance they receive," Goodrich explained in testimony last week before a U.S. Senate panel on Social Security and family policy. "Regular school attendance will increase their chances of finding adequate employment as adults."

Thompson, Wisconsin's welfare-cutting Republican governor, put it another way. "Learnfare is, without question, a controversial program," he has said. "It's controversial because it places responsibility for the child on the parent, and some people think that's unreasonable. . . . If parents don't take responsibility for their children, who will?"

Although officials say monetary savings were not a reason for enacting Learnfare, it is a cornerstone of Thompson's welfare reform initiatives, which he claims have cut AFDC caseloads in the state by 19% since 1987. Critics question, though, whether the decline in caseloads should be attributed to the reforms or to an economic upturn in the state.

Wisconsin's Learnfare program was the most far-reaching and controversial of the wave of welfare reform legislation enacted by a number of states in recent years, said Bard Shollenberger, director of governmental affairs for the American Public Welfare Assn. Most of the states--including Ohio, Florida, Minnesota and New Jersey--enacted laws requiring only young parents on welfare to return to school. Only Wisconsin and Missouri have extended the requirement to the welfare recipient's children, he said.

Because of the rush to implement Learnfare in Wisconsin, said Tom Corbett, associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Poverty Research Institute, "no one knows what the impact of the program is on attendance. . . . This program was approached as if there was a crisis and very little analysis was done before it was developed and implemented. It simply wasn't the proper way to enact so radical a change."

Changes in truancy law, including changes in the state's definition of what is an unexcused absence, renders meaningless direct comparisons between current attendance figures and attendance figures before the program came into existence, he said.

In addition to this criticism, the Wisconsin law is facing a class action lawsuit in Milwaukee by families receiving AFDC payments. They allege that Learnfare violates Social Security Act guidelines by not providing due process before reducing AFDC grants.

"They (state officials) get the information from the schools on the number of unexcused absences," said Patricio DeLessio, a staff lawyer with Legal Action of Wisconsin, representing the families. "There is no determination made before reducing the amount of the family's grant of what has caused the absences or whether the information from the school is accurate. Also they won't tell the parents what dates are in question. They also don't do any type of assessment of the student's needs."

Willie T. Little, community affairs director of Milwaukee schools, acknowledges there have been as many as 50 mistakes per month in the district caused by administrative problems associated with Learnfare. He says the problems are being corrected.

In requesting approval from the federal government to begin the program in 1987, the state said the policy would give students "a clearly understandable and monetarily tangible reason to pursue their education."

Department of Health and Social Services staff originally proposed referring all teen-agers to social services as a first step before applying any sanctions. This idea was abandoned, however, because it was considered too costly.

The failure to couple sanctions with mandatory social services has been the source of the most serious criticisms. "Attendance problems tend to mirror other problems in families," Little said. "Children who drop out do it for a reason."

Although researchers say they cannot yet determine the ultimate success or failure of Learnfare, a study released in March by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute found that 28% of the 6,612 teen-agers sanctioned in Milwaukee County for not meeting school attendance requirements were reported to be regularly attending school two months after their last sanction.

Goodrich, secretary of state Health and Social Services, says the figure more accurately should be 40% but that the study wrongly counted hundreds of teen-agers who are no longer subject to Learnfare, either because their families no longer are on welfare or for other reasons.

Whatever the accurate figure on students back in school, the study showed that a large number of the students sanctioned had social problems that might have caused them to miss school.

Twenty percent of the teen-agers sanctioned were in families identified by county social service workers or the Children's Court system as having possible or documented problems with abuse or neglect, the report said. When combined with children who had been through the Children's Court system either for delinquency or because they needed protective services the number rose to 2,722 or 41%.

Critics say these families need social service assistance--not sanctions.

But while many welfare parents who have been penalized are opposed to the program, others say Learnfare has helped them.

"If it wasn't for Learnfare I probably wouldn't have an education and I probably couldn't go to school," said Cindy Spencer. The 19-year-old Milwaukee resident said she briefly left school after her child was born last year. Through Learnfare she was enrolled in an alternative high school and now is continuing her education, she said.

"Learnfare provided me with child care, books, classes and transportation to get to school and to get home," she said.

The governor recently signed a bill to provide additional funds to large counties for social workers to review student needs before sanctions are applied, Goodrich said. Beginning next fall, the state also will allow the Milwaukee school district to use $500,000 in state desegregation funds to finance additional alternative-education programs for teen-age dropouts.

Because of the changes, Little said: "I can see some positive benefits at this time from Learnfare." He said the program is "one measure that can be used to encourage parental responsibility for school attendance."

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave the state permission to extend the Learnfare program for three more years, through September, 1994, and approved the expansion of Learnfare to all grades. For preteens, no sanctions will be applied until after social workers meet with parents and work out a plan to improve school attendance. "If the family agrees to the plan and works with the plan, the family will never be sanctioned," Goodrich said.

The state Legislature must approve the expansion before it will go into effect.

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