MILWAUKEE — 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.