No Fanfare for Learnfare

This school year, Governor George Pataki of New York expanded Learnfare--a program making family-assistance grants contingent upon children's attendance at school--to include all elementary schools in the state. After three unexcused absences, students on welfare must seek counseling. After four unexcused absences, their families lose $60 in monthly assistance, which they can earn back with perfect attendance the following quarter. During the program's two-year pilot run, 329 families had their grants reduced, and only 16 families were able to recover their losses. Learnfare, according to Pataki, rests on the premise that "[a] good education is a key building block in any child's future and is absolutely necessary to break what for too many families has become a generational dependency on public assistance." And by targeting the very young in grades one through six, it hopes to "help them move out of the welfare culture," according to Jack Madden, spokesperson for the state's Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. The rationale--a classic culture-of-poverty argument-- assumes that poor school attendance is due to poor values.

But no evidence for such a claim exists. "Is lower school attendance by poor students because their families lack a belief in the importance of school or because various circumstances like asthma afflict them more than middle-class families?" said Katherine Newman, an anthropologist at Harvard University who has studied poor working-class families in New York. According to Newman's research, poor families emphasize schooling even more than others, especially because parents with little or no education struggle in the labor market and hence do not want their children to repeat the experience. Learnfare also suggests that children whose families are on welfare miss school at a higher rate than others, but is that true?

"We don't have statistics on that," said Madden. Officials in Virginia and Florida also did not have data on attendance. However, an assessment of Learnfare in Wisconsin in 1995, where the program was pioneered, showed that the attendance rate for those subject to public-assistance reductions was 70.7 percent; it was 70.8 percent for those not affected by Learnfare. The unexcused-absence rate was similar: 23.1 percent for those subject to reductions and 22.9 percent for students unaffected by Learnfare. In Iowa, a state Department of Education study was also unable to show a correlation between school attendance and income group.

Not only does Learnfare fail to establish a need for itself; there's little evidence that the program even works. The study in Wisconsin found that, at a cost of $11.8 million per year, the program did not succeed in raising attendance. "The thing to report is it isn't working. It has no positive impact," an official told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 1996. Virginia's Learnfare program has run since 1995. Has attendance improved? "I don't have any data on that either," said Carolyn Ellis from the state's Department of Social Services.

But all this has not stopped New York from expanding this pilot pro-gram to encompass all its schools--though not without problems. As of January, many schools had not been able to put the program in place, mainly because of a lag in paper work: Clients must sign a release form for their children's educational records to be released. Critics also argue that the program is underfunded. Under the pilot program, the state allocated $1 million to monitor 15,500 students. But this year, 250,000 students would have to be watched, and the budget allocated is only $4 million, forcing New York's elementary schools to handle 16 times more students on only four times more money.