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Through three semesters of evaluation, a Wisconsin program aimed at keeping children of welfare families in school has been a failure, a state audit found.

Meanwhile, a more narrowly focused Ohio program using financial incentives for school attendance has helped teenagers on welfare complete school, get jobs and leave welfare.Here's a look at the two programs:

In Wisconsin, a program called Learnfare took effect in 1988. It was aimed at improving life for teens growing up on welfare by requiring them to stay in school and attend classes. If they don't, their families are punished with cuts in monthly payments through Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The grant reductions have averaged about $130 a month.

The recently enacted Wisconsin Works (W-2) plan, a work-based program to replace AFDC beginning late next year, would continue the Learnfare sanctions.

But this week the independent Legislative Audit Bureau found "no detectable effect on school participation" attributable to Learnfare.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, Learnfare cost about $11.8 million in state, federal and local funding last year. Savings in welfare benefits tied to Learnfare ran $1.3 million for the same period.

An earlier report in the audit bureau series, released last December, detected positive effects from Learnfare on some groups: dropouts, teen parents, older teens and teens outside of Milwaukee County. But the report released this week said such signs "were no longer evident."

"The thing to report is, it isn't working. It has no positive impact," said John Pawasarat, director of the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Four years ago, the institute released research with similar findings: no consistent improvement in school attendance based on Learnfare. State and federal officials took issue with the report and subsequently arranged for the audit bureau's evaluation, which is scheduled to wrap up with a final report this summer.

Learnfare supporters stood by the program on principle, despite the findings.

"I want to see positive results, but the message is very important," said GOP Rep. John Gard, chairman of the Assembly Welfare Reform Committee.

Downplaying the audit's findings, Kevin Keane, press secretary to Gov. Tommy Thompson, noted other signs that welfare reforms were working. Improvements in Milwaukee's overall dropout and graduation rates as well as declining welfare rolls are evidence that Learnfare, in conjunction with other welfare and school reforms, is effective, Keane said.

"There's plenty of positive information out there showing that this group is moving in the right direction," Keane said. "Learnfare was just the first in a series of reforms by Gov. Thompson. It was by no means a silver bullet."

In the Ohio study, independent researchers reported that the Ohio LEAP program (Learning, Earning And Parenting) appeared to be helping school-age parents.

In contrast to Learnfare, LEAP applies only to teenage parents who receive AFDC. Begun in 1989, LEAP both rewards and punishes participants by raising or lowering their monthly welfare grants by $62, based on school attendance.

According to the study:

- 46 percent of teens enrolled in LEAP completed high school or a GED, vs. 39 percent of teens in a control group.

- 39 percent of LEAP teens were working, as opposed to 27 percent of the others.

Pawasarat criticized LEAP for letting participants substitute GED attainment for high school graduation.

"Nothing substitutes for completing high school," Pawasarat said. On that count, he lumped LEAP together with Learnfare, saying: "They both fail to get kids to complete high school."

By focusing on teen parents receiving AFDC, LEAP aims at the group most likely to become long-term welfare recipients, according to researchers.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)