The New Mat

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One boy didn’t have a winter coat or warm shoes. Another was afraid of his teacher. A third had to accompany his parents to court because they couldn’t speak English. All of them couldn’t show up for school at some point last year.

These are the kind of situations that often lead kids to cut class–trivial problems, for the most part, easily diagnosed and solved by school social workers. But with a new state program that ties parents’ welfare benefits to their kids’ attendance, small problems like these could have huge consequences. This new anti-truancy initiative takes aim at some of the most vulnerable students, those whose families are dependent on public assistance.

This fall, a program known as Learnfare is being launched in every elementary school in New York State, putting some 250,000 students under the watchful eye of attendance officials. With Learnfare, a student who misses a total of three days of school without a doctor’s note during an academic quarter has to go see a counselor. Then, if the child is absent two more times, his or her family’s welfare check will be docked by $60 a month for the next three months. The money is reimbursed only if the student has perfect attendance during the next academic quarter, or has valid written excuses for any further absences.

During the last two school years, the families of 1,747 children statewide went through a pilot version of Learnfare. The results were a lot harsher than a stern phone call from a principal: 68 families had part or all of their welfare benefits withheld because their children repeatedly missed school. Forty-one other households had their benefits completely cut off for neglecting to mail in the form that would allow the Board of Education to release attendance records to the city’s welfare agency.

New York is hardly the first state to make school attendance a qualification for welfare benefits. As part of its groundbreaking welfare reform package, Wisconsin pioneered Learnfare in 1988; that year, 27 other states obtained the federal waivers that allow them to make school attendance a condition for welfare benefits.

With a big push from Governor George Pataki, New York is now launching its program on little more than a mandate and a prayer. Wisconsin spent $9 million a year on its initiative. Albany has budgeted just $4 million statewide–less than 5 percent of what the city’s Human Resources Administration says it alone needs to run the program.

Nonetheless, state officials are plowing ahead. Just as workfare professes to get parents into the discipline of showing up for work, Learnfare, they say, aims to do the same thing for children. “At that age, it’s a time when you learn right from wrong,” says Jack Madden, spokesperson for the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which oversees welfare programs. “We need to coach them to a life of self-sufficiency.”

At the six city schools in the pilot run, attendance rates did climb slightly during the first year, by about 3 percent on average. Sixty-four students were referred to truancy counseling. But in none of these cases did counseling actually work as a deterrent: Every one of these families later lost part of its check, and only 10 households ultimately had their benefits reimbursed.

While school administrators say they welcome new approaches to dealing with truancy, some who participated in the pilot program have already given up on Learnfare. “Learnfare really gave us nothing but more work,” says Doris Wilson, the attendance teacher at P.S. 178 in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Her principal, Max Glover, contends that counselors needed extra help that he couldn’t afford to provide.

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During her 30 years as an attendance counselor at P.S. 178, Wilson has organized class trips, hosted bread-making workshops and awarded certificates of honor, all as incentives for getting kids to come to school. Like one-fifth of all city elementary and middle schools, P.S. 178 is part of a 5-year-old, $25 million city program, called Attendance Improvement Dropout Prevention, that tries to cut back on truancy with counselors, class trips and parent programs.

But Wilson has never tried using threats rather than rewards. She’s also suspicious of a program that singles out one group of kids in particular. “I don’t really like the idea,” Wilson says of Learnfare. She’s concerned, she says, about penalizing poor families for problems like evictions or asthma attacks. In addition, Wilson is all too aware that her school’s attendance-keeping system is far from perfect; she reports it’s not unusual for a child who shows up late to mistakenly be hit with an absent mark when the forms are scanned into the school database.

Because the Board of Ed requires home visits for chronic truants, P.S. 178 family caseworker Shenan Ford sees first-hand the problems that keep kids out of school. On his home visits, eight to 10 a day, he often finds overwhelmed parents trying to juggle work, child care and health problems. “You have kids whose parents keep them home to do errands or baby sit so they can go out,” he says. “That’s not right.”

Under Learnfare, however, excuses alone won’t fly. Illnesses usually require a doctor’s note; appearances in court call for a statement from a court officer. It remains to be seen how attendance counselors will interpret an allowance for “crisis situations.”

The teachers and principals unions aren’t waiting to find out–they’ve come out against Learnfare for what they call its “punitive” tactics. “It’s holding poor families to a tougher standard than other families,” says Ron Davis of the United Federation of Teachers. “And it’s an additional burden for the teachers.”

It’s true that children on public assistance are more likely to miss school. One Delaware report found that 29 percent of kids on welfare nationwide miss 10 days of school or more each year, compared with 19 percent of middle-class students. Because most absences are illness-related, the Delaware researchers concluded that public health care programs are the best way to reduce truancy.

In New York, $4 million is supposed to subsidize both counseling and parent notification letters for all 2,470 elementary schools statewide. “There is adequate money available to all districts for counseling services,” insists state agency spokesperson Madden. The city may disagree, however: The Board of Education estimates that staffing one school with an aide, a counselor and a caseworker will cost about $150,000. Last spring, HRA asked that $79.5 million of the state’ s welfare surplus–now standing at $1.44 billion–go to fund Learnfare.

HRA refuses to disclose how much Learnfare support it is receiving from the state, and the Board of Ed refers all funding questions back to HRA. But when asked if the welfare agency is helping the Board of Ed pay for counseling under Learnfare, HRA spokesperson Ruth Reinacke responds, “I don’t think so. That’s something [the Board of Ed] should be doing already.”

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This summer, the welfare agency sent letters to all 115,000 of its clients with school-age children, asking them to sign consent forms or risk having their cases closed. But as of the September 1 due date, almost half had not yet been returned to HRA. The Community Food Resource Center found that four of every 10 of its clients who were supposed to get the letter never even received it, and some of those who did get it weren’t sure what it meant. The agency has announced that, for now, it won’t cut anyone off for failing to return the letter. It is also working on additional mailing and outreach efforts before moving forward with Learnfare.

Meanwhile, legal advocates are poised to sue the city as soon as the first family loses benefits under Learnfare. “It will probably be for people being cut off without adequate notice,” says Cathleen Clements, a board member of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. The law authorizing Learnfare is slated to sunset in July, giving advocates another chance to derail it; so far, the Assembly has sat on a proposal that would extend it by five years.

In other states, Learnfare hasn’t paid off. In Wisconsin, state-commissioned studies found that overall attendance actually decreased under Learnfare. Truancy specialists say there are far more effective approaches. “Trying to engage the families and become partners with them is the healthy way to go,” says Sharon Daly of the Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, which places counselors in New York City elementary schools.

But instead, New York is heading in an unhealthy direction, with Governor Pataki calling for Learnfare to be expanded through high school. Given teens’ tendencies, that could deal a crushing blow to families already burdened with internal strife. In Wisconsin, 47 percent of high school students whose parents were sanctioned had dropped out of school within a year of starting Learnfare.

Steven Grossman, chair of the UFT’s attendance teachers and himself an attendance teacher for 10 years, recalled one 16-year-old mother he recently counseled. With both 1-year-old twins and a 4-year-old, she was refusing to go to school. “I visited her every few weeks at the house,” he says. And eventually, she started going to classes again. “You want to cut an allotment to a family like that?”

Jill Grossman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.