University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Employment and Training Institute

Brief Summary

Report to the Wisconsin Legislature on the Learnfare Evaluation

by Lois M. Quinn, John Pawasarat and Terence J. Roehrig, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, January 1991


This report to the Wisconsin Legislature on the Learnfare evaluation discussed Learnfare covered activities during the first two years of the Learnfare waiver. It was based on a review of the monthly state computer records used to administer the policy. The evaluators did not review school enrollment or attendance records for this report.

The Learnfare experiment is based on the premise that state and county welfare departments can secure on a semester and/or monthly basis accurate school attendance records for all teenagers in the state receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The state and county role appears relatively simple: to record the student's school district and grade level and to determine whether the teen qualified for any of the "good cause" exemptions identified in the Learnfare policy. Each month schools are required to retrieve monthly and semester school records on excused and unexcused absences for AFDC youth, who are identified by name and date of birth. In Milwaukee the state financed the development of computerized systems by which names and dates of birth of teens in AFDC cases were automatically matched with computer records of enrolled students in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). Students showing excessive absences as well as AFDC teens "not found" because of their failure to enroll in MPS or data mismatches were targeted for sanctioning.

The evaluators reviewed copies of existing Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) computer records for AFDC recipients ages thirteen through nineteen for the Learnfare period. It was expected that DHSS records could be used to summarize the school enrollment experience of Learnfare teens statewide and by individual county and school district both during and prior to the Learnfare experiment. However, after extensive analysis of the data, it became evident that the records on AFDC teens used to administer the Learnfare policy had serious omissions and errors which precluded their use to describe changes in student enrollment over time.

  1. The evaluators created longitudinal files of all teen dependents and teen parents receiving AFDC and their families in order to establish baseline data on teens subject to the Learnfare policy. During the sixteen month period from September, 1988 through December, 1989, 53,236 AFDC recipients were youth ages thirteen through nineteen, potentially subject to Learnfare. This included 41,778 dependent teens living with a natural or adoptive parent and 11,464 teen parents, including 1,173 dependents who became parents during the study.
  2. The length of time teens remained on AFDC and potentially subject to the Learnfare experiment varied widely. Slightly more than half of the 6,485 thirteen year olds on AFDC in September, 1988 continued on AFDC for sixteen months. By contrast only about a third of the sixteen year olds and less than ten percent of the seventeen year olds on AFDC in September, 1988, continued on AFDC and were potentially subject to the Learnfare requirement for sixteen months. 3,278 of the thirteen to seventeen year olds on AFDC in September, 1988, were on AFDC for three months or less.
  3. The majority of AFDC teens expected to attend school under Learnfare were coded as residents of the Milwaukee Public Schools, making up forty-three percent of the total as of December, 1989. Twenty-five percent of the teens were from twenty other large urban school districts. Thirty-five districts in the state (including some elementary only school districts) had no teens subject to the Learnfare requirement and 157 school districts had less than ten Learnfare teen each. The Vocational, Technical and Adult Education schools, charged with educating adult non-graduates, were listed for only eight percent of teen parents and less than one percent of all teens.
  4. The Family Support Act specifically targeted teen mothers as a priority population for service, as did the original legislation proposing Learnfare in Wisconsin. The participation rate in Learnfare for this group, however, was dramatically lower than that for dependent teens. As of December, 1989, forty-seven percent of teen parents coded as non-graduates were exempt from school enrollment or attendance under Learnfare. By contrast, only two percent of teen dependents coded as non-graduates were exempted from school. The school exemption rate for teen parents was higher in the rural counties than in Milwaukee County or other urban counties.
  5. The evaluators identified over 16,000 obvious errors, missing data or inconsistencies in the teen client records used to enforce the Learnfare policy. These errors and omissions were noted at the county level and do not include errors in recording or reporting actual daily attendance in the 450 plus school districts submitting monthly and semester attendance reports. Errors included records of teens aged fourteen through nineteen coded as "children under age 13," teens with missing grade levels, teens showing an increase of three to fifteen grade levels completed over a sixteen month period, teens coded first as dropouts and immediately after as "students in good standing," students with missing or inaccurate school district codes, and teens remaining for two or more months on "unverified" or "not found" status. These errors and the administrative problems which cause them do not threaten the evaluation hypothesis testing since the evaluators are relying upon school district data rather than welfare records. However, they raise serious questions about the use of state welfare system files for interim progress reports on Learnfare outcomes.
  6. Practices for collecting and reporting school enrollment and attendance vary by school district and within counties and have been in flux in Milwaukee County where policies governing the codes have been refined through administrative fair hearing rulings and by the state response to a July, 1990 federal court injunction prohibiting the sanctioning of teens in Milwaukee. (Kronquist v Goodrich, Civil Action No. 89-C-1376)

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