MILWAUKEE, AUG. 17 -- Wisconsin officials have agreed to revise the state's "Learnfare" program, which cuts welfare benefits to families whose children skip school, in order to meet a judge's objections that it may be unfair in some cases.
Critics and supporters of the controversial two-year-old program should reach a final agreement by November, said Edward Marion, chief counsel for the Wisconsin Health and Social Services Department.
"We have essentially agreed in principle on what is necessary to lift the injunction," Marion said Thursday following a hearing before U.S. District Judge Terence T. Evans.
Last month, Evans ordered the suspension of Learnfare in Milwaukee, saying record-keeping errors had resulted in unfair treatment of some families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
The advocacy group Legal Action of Wisconsin had sued on behalf of six families who claimed their AFDC benefits were wrongly reduced because of errors in school attendance records.
The injunction applied only to the 3,200 teenagers attending Milwaukee Public Schools whose parents have lost or were in danger of losing benefits. The program is still in effect elsewhere in Wisconsin.
Anne DeLeo, a lawyer for Legal Action, told Evans that the state and her group have agreed that Milwaukee County and the state Health and Social Services Department will verify students' attendance records before reducing their parents' welfare benefits.
She said the state also will investigate teenagers' reasons for missing school to make sure the absences were not for legitimate reasons such as illness or death in the family.
The state also agreed to issue notices to a teenager and the family when they are being monitored for possible sanction.
"We've got the agreement in principle that these things should be done," DeLeo said. "How we do that and with what personnel we do it is still undecided."
Learnfare, authorized by the legislature in 1987, deducts about $100 a month for an average family receiving $517 a month in AFDC benefits if one of its teenagers is consistently truant.
Legal Action attorneys estimated that 1,600 to 2,000 Milwaukee students were sanctioned each month under the program.
Of the 30,000 students subject to Learnfare, half live in Milwaukee County, and three-fourths of the sanctions have been levied there, according to state figures.
Evans scheduled a hearing Jan. 8 to review the status of the case, but said the injunction could be lifted sooner.