University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Employment and Training Institute

Brief Summary

Evaluation of the Impact of Wisconsin's Learnfare Experiment on the School Attendance of Teenagers Receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children

by John Pawasarat, Lois M. Quinn and Frank Stetzer, Employment and Training Institute, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, February 1992

NOTE: THE FULL REPORT IS AVAILABLE ONLINE

The Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was selected by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services to conduct two of the three state evaluations of Wisconsin welfare reform initiatives. The Institute prepared a research design for the evaluation study of Learnfare's impact on school attendance of teens receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which was approved by the Department of Health and Social Services in July, 1991. For the study the evaluators reviewed school attendance records for a six-year period for over 50,000 teens in Milwaukee Public Schools who were in families receiving or formerly receiving AFDC. School records were also analyzed for nearly 6,000 teenagers from five school districts representative of the remainder of the state. Schools studied included another urban school district with a relatively high minority student enrollment, two mid-size Wisconsin school districts, and two small rural districts. Samples were not used. In each school district, the entire AFDC and former AFDC teen population was studied. Major findings of the study include:

  1. Using lagged regression models which controlled for differences in age, grade level, sex, race, and months on AFDC, the school attendance of AFDC teens under the Learnfare policy was compared to school attendance of teens formerly on AFDC and teens receiving AFDC prior to the Learnfare experiment. High school teens subject to the Learnfare attendance requirement did not show improvement in attendance during the Learnfare experiment in any of the six school districts studied, as compared to control groups of AFDC and former AFDC teen students.
  2. To test whether the lack of improvement in attendance attributable to the Learnfare requirement was resulting from the retention of potential dropouts, a second series of lagged regression analyses included dropouts in both the control and experimental groups as absent for the entire semester. Again, no improvement in attendance was found for high school teens subject to the Learnfare attendance requirement.
  3. Similarly, the Learnfare requirement was found to have no impact on reducing semester absences among eighth grade students subject to the policy.
  4. In Milwaukee AFDC teens showed a slight, but statistically significant, increase in absences under the Learnfare policy. Comparing Spring 1989 to Spring 1990, about 7 percent of teens under Learnfare missed the same number of days of school each semester, 36 percent had fewer absences the second year, and 56 percent had more absences the second year. For the control group of teens not under the Learnfare policy, about 6 percent missed the same number of days, 44 percent had fewer absences the second year, and 50 percent had more absences the second year.
  5. The lack of holding power of the Learnfare sanction was also seen in descriptive statistics for the Milwaukee Public Schools population. After one year of Learnfare, nearly half (47 percent) of in-school youth whose families received AFDC sanctions for their poor attendance dropped out of school completely.
  6. Graduation rates for Milwaukee teens subject to Learnfare who entered high school as Freshmen in the 1987-88 school year and a control group of low-income classmates were the same, with 18 percent of each group actually finishing their senior year and graduating in June, 1991. The graduation rates for the next largest urban school district were 48 percent for the Learnfare group and 49 percent for the control group.
  7. In Milwaukee the percentage of high school students missing more than a day of school a week on average increased over the three years of Learnfare. By Spring semester of 1991 over 40 percent of Learnfare teens were missing more than a day of school a week on average. The next largest urban school district showed similar patterns to Milwaukee with over 30 percent of high school teens missing more than twenty days in the fall, and more than 40 percent of Learnfare teens missing more than twenty days of school in two of the Learnfare spring semesters. One of the rural districts showed over 60 percent of Learnfare teens with forty or more absences the third year of Learnfare.
  8. Nearly half of teen parent non-graduates in Milwaukee were never required to attend school under threat of Learnfare sanctioning. Of Milwaukee Public School teen parents required to attend school under the Learnfare policy and threatened with financial sanctions, less than half were enrolled in school. Subsequently, well over half (56 to 64 percent) of this population was sanctioned each semester.


Milwaukee Public School Teen Parents on AFDC
SemesterTotalPercent EnrolledPercent not EnrolledPercent Exempt from Learnfare
1988-89 I1,059
33%
67%
49%
1988-89 II1,284
39%
61%
43%
1989-90 I1,314
34%
66%
49%
1989-90 II1,468
35%
65%
44%

MPS Teen Parents Required to Attend School Under Learnfare
SemesterTotalPercent Enrolled Percent Sanctioned
1988-89 I 539
47%
56%
1988-89 II 728
48%
63%
1989-90I 675
48%
57%
1989-90 II 822
48%
64%


Author's Note

by Lois M. Quinn, January 1997

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute completed the Evaluation of the Impact of Wisconsin's Learnfare Experiment on the School Attendance of Teenagers Receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children in February 1992. After the Employment and Training Institute refused to comply with written instructions from the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services to suppress its research findings and to revise the evaluation according to new specifications developed by the Department, the Department canceled all contracts with the Institute, including contracts to evaluate the effectiveness of case management services offered under Learnfare and analyses of the impact of the Learnfare policy on AFDC families.1

In May 1992 the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services entered into contract with the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau to conduct a second evaluation of the impact of the Learnfare experiment on teenage attendance. While Learnfare expenditures had more than doubled since the period of the first evaluation (see table below), the third semester evaluation of the Audit Bureau reported similar findings to those observed by the Employment and Training Institute. The Audit Bureau found no positive effects on the attendance of teenagers in the Learnfare population studied or for any of the subgroups analyzed, including dropouts, teenage parents, older teenagers, younger teenagers, teenagers living in Milwaukee County or teenagers living in other parts of the state.2 Furthermore, the Audit Bureau reported attendance rates for Learnfare teens which suggested the same serious and accelerating truancy problems identified in the Institute's first evaluation study.


Average Attendance Rates of Teenagers Under the Learnfare Requirement
(Legislative Audit Bureau Evaluation) 3
Age of Teens First Semester Second Semester Third Semester
14- and 15-year- olds
74.1%
73.6%
72.2%
16- and 17-year- olds
60.0%
51.5%
41.3%
18- and 19-year-olds
19.4%
14.3%
5.0%

While the Learnfare policy has not shown positive impact on the serious problems of truancy among low-income youths, the program remains politically popular. Since 1988 Wisconsin has invested over $70 million in Learnfare-related administrative costs, child care services and special projects aimed at AFDC teens.


Wisconsin Learnfare Expenditures: 1988-1996 4
Calendar Year State Funds Federal Funds Local Funds Total
1988$983,200 $1,229,700 $0 $2,212,900
1989 1,391,400 1,754,300 0 3,145,700
1990 1,733,000 2,315,800 252,100 4,300,900
1991 2,765,900 3,422,400 729,700 6,918,000
1992 3,027,200 5,095,800 1,945,700 10,068,700
1993 2,939,500 5,024,000 1,965,100 9,928,600
1994 2,866,500 5,385,400 1,819,000 10,070,900
1995 3,108,500 5,955,300 2,708,200 11,772,000
1996 3,591,800 6,429,300 2,159,400 12,180,500
Total $22,407,000 $36,612,000 $11,579,200 $70,598,200

The reasons for the ineffectiveness of the Learnfare policy are not readily apparent. Several possible factors could be evaluated.

Endnotes

  1. For a discussion of the events leading to the University's contract cancellation, see Lois M. Quinn and Robert S. Magill, "Politics versus Research in Social Policy," Social Science Review 68 (December 1994): 503-520.
  2. Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau, An Evaluation of the Third-Semester Effects of the Wisconsin Learnfare Program (Madison, Wis.: May 1996).
  3. Ibid., 22-24.
  4. The amounts for 1988 through 1995 are actual expenditures; the figures for 1996 are contract amounts, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services. The Department estimates that Learnfare sanctions totaled $12.1 million from March 1988 through May 1996. Rob Reinhardt, Fiscal Analyst, Legislative Fiscal Bureau, to Representative Barbara Notestein, 21 May 1996.
  5. See Lois Quinn, "Using Threats of Poverty to Promote School Attendance: Implications of Wisconsin's Learnfare Experiment for Families," Journal of Children and Poverty 1 (Summer 1995): 5-16, and John Pawasarat and Lois M. Quinn, The Impact of Learnfare on Milwaukee County Social Service Clients, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute, March 1990.


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