If Labour is serious about boosting school attendance by cutting
benefits to truants’ families it ought to check out US
states’ experience of Learnfare programmes. Could such
schemes work here, asks education welfare officer Ming Zhang.
The government is apparently still considering withdrawing child
benefit from parents whose children truant from school. A similar
scheme was introduced in the US 15 years ago resulting in large
savings on welfare payments to low income families but less clear
benefits for children’s education.
Under the Learnfare programme, which has been implemented in
several states, every parent claiming state benefits must agree to
the benefit agency (the Department of Transitional Assistance)
collecting the school attendance records of their school-age
children once every school quarter (45 days). Benefits agencies
have an agreement with local schools that the staff will report
school attendance information directly to local DTA offices.
Each school is supposed to report the number of unexcused
absences of each child benefit recipient. Parents must sign a
release to waiver their right to privacy regarding their
children’s school records. Those who educate their children
at home must bring proof in to their local benefit agency in the
form of a letter from a local school stating that they are
satisfied with the home education arrangement.
If a child misses more than four school days in the 45-day
school quarter without school’s authorisation, the
family’s benefit entitlement is put on “probation.”
If the same child has more than three half-day absences during
the next month, the family will lose between $62 and $92 a month of
child benefits, depending on the state. The family will continue to
lose about that sum per month in benefits for each child on
probation and with more than three unauthorised absences in any
school month. The same child will remain on probation until he or
she meets the Learnfare requirements of a good school attendance
record. If a child has more than three absences for three
consecutive months, the benefits agencies will refer the case to
the Department of Social Services which will then contact the
family to carry out further investigation with a view to assessing
the child’s needs.
Sickness, religious holidays, the death of an immediate family
member or a crisis situation are accepted as valid excuses for
absence but only if the parents can produce the evidence. Sickness
must be authorised by a doctor if it lasts more than four days, and
parents may be asked for a letter confirming a religious holiday
from a religious leader. A death certificate has to be produced if
a child is kept away from school by bereavement, and the benefits
agency decides what counts as a “crisis”.
There are no exceptions for children who are disabled or who
have been expelled or suspended from a school with no access to
alternative education. Some families’ child welfare
assistance was “sanctioned” simply because parents did not believe
the current educational provisions were suitable to their
children’s needs and therefore refused to let their children
The Wisconsin “miracle”
The scheme was first introduced in Wisconsin, where it
covers all children of compulsory school age.
When the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was commissioned to
evaluate the scheme it examined the records of 56,000 Learnfare
subjects and found that their school attendance had not
improved.1 In fact, nearly half of the pupils whose
families lost benefits because of their poor attendance had dropped
out of school completely after a year of Learnfare.
But by the time the first results of the research were released
in 1995, Wisconsin’s Learnfare initiative had already been
hailed as a “Wisconsin welfare miracle” by the US national press.
Hundreds of delegates from home and abroad were received by the
state offices to witness Wisconsin’s shining example. So amid
overwhelmingly positive press coverage of their Learnfare
experience, Wisconsin’s Department of Health and Social
Services challenged the methodology of the research carried out by
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and requested a revision of the
findings. Of course, it was refused. The department then
immediately discontinued the research contract with the university
and started an evaluation programme to be carried out by the state
The state auditor was also unable to find evidence that
Learnfare had any detectable effect on enrolment or attendance for
the pupils in younger groups or for the teenagers as a
whole.2 But according to the auditor’s subsequent
reports, Wisconsin Learnfare had produced some positive effects on
the school attendance of teenagers in a few groups, specifically
teenage parents, teenagers who were not enrolled in school at the
time they were introduced to Learnfare and 18 to 19 year olds. Not
surprisingly it was also found that Learnfare generated substantial
savings on state welfare costs through the sanction imposed on
school absentees’ households.
Great leap forward?
Following Wisconsin’s Learnfare example, Ohio
introduced new federal welfare reform legislation in 1996. The
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act
1996 required that teenage parents under the age of 18 be enrolled
in school or in an approved education or training programme if they
were to receive federal funds under the Temporary Assistance to
Needy Families programme. This led to the introduction of
Ohio’s “Learning, Earning, and Parenting” (Leap) project,
which used a system of cash rewards for good school attendance by
teenage parents as well as welfare sanctions for poor school
An evaluation of the outcomes of the programme found mixed
results.3 Some 93 per cent of enrolled teenage parents
experienced at least one upward or downward adjustment in their
grants. It did not, however, have a significant effect on high
school graduation rates, although it did significantly increase the
proportion of teenage parents receiving a Diploma of General
Over a four-year period, the programme had a significant effect
on employment outcomes for teenage parents who were already
enrolled in school when they began participating in Leap. It did
not have a significant effect for those who had already left school
before beginning their participation.
The study concludes that the programme reduced overall state
welfare assistance costs for young people in Ohio. Teenage parents,
however, on average, experienced an income loss of approximately
$1,100 over a four-year period.
Both Wisconsin’s “welfare miracle” and Ohio’s Leap
experience indicate that Learnfare can save money for states
through the sanctions imposed on low-income households. However,
implementation of programmes is also highly costly and potentially
divisive, as the New York state experience shows.
A short-lived affair
Learnfare in New York was enacted through the Welfare
Reform Act 1997. In that year, New York’s Learnfare began as
a pilot programme in New York City and three upstate counties. In
September 1998, six more counties were added, and the following
September the programme was implemented state-wide.
New York’s Learnfare policy-makers had noted that
evaluations of the Wisconsin programme did not show improvements in
attendance and that University of Wisconsin’s 1995 report
actually showed a decline in attendance by two-thirds of urban
Learnfare participants from 1998-2001 and an increase in the number
of children opting out of school.
However, the idea was politically popular for the Republicans
and the Democrats and it was considered that the failure of the
Wisconsin programme was due to it having to deal with “hard-core”
and older school absentees.
So, instead of targeting pupils at high schools, New York
state’s programme, which was otherwise similar to
Wisconsin’s, focused on children at elementary schools.
Problems for New York’s programme began when parents of
children receiving temporary assistance to needy families (Tanf)
were asked to sign a release waiving their right to privacy under
the Federal Educational Privacy Act. Some refused and were
threatened with the termination of their benefits. Parents held the
schools responsible for this and school staff became the target of
hostile and intimidating behaviour.
Amid the furore, state legislators cancelled future development
plans and the New York Learnfare programme fizzled out. Reports
suggested that the troubled programme had not had much impact on
What about a UK version?
There has already been plenty of debate about the wisdom
or morality of taking away welfare assistance from children who are
already in poverty. But what are the practical issues in
implementing a UK version of Learnfare initiative, especially its
implication for front-line practitioners such as teachers, social
workers and education welfare officers?
Learnfare programmes in the US found that agencies became
increasingly tied up with explaining to parents on state benefits
why they had to sign a contract surrendering their right to privacy
and how the Learnfare programme worked. This was not an easy task
especially when most parents felt that they were being penalised
for being on state benefits.
This issue raises the question of who would be responsible for
implementing this scheme if our government decides to go ahead with
docking child benefit from families of truanting children. Would it
be schools, local education authorities, the benefit agency or even
social services? The US experience indicates huge implementation
costs although these were generally balanced by the savings in
school absentees’ welfare assistance. Looking at it
cynically, the more pupils fail to attend school, the more money is
saved by welfare agencies. Inevitably, such a programme would
require schools, local education authorities and the Department for
Work and Pensions to co-ordinate their roles in implementing the
The second question is which groups of pupils would the
programme focus on. As we have seen, there is no evidence of US
Learnfare achieving its stated goal of reducing truancy. The
Wisconsin experience turned out only to be effective in getting
teenage parents and pregnant schoolgirls to register themselves on
a school’s roll, but failed to make them attend more
regularly. Both New York’s and Wisconsin’s experiences
suggest that such initiatives have no impact on younger
pupils’ attendance records at all.
So, is it worth importing Learnfare in order only to get our
pregnant schoolgirls and teenage parents enrolled at school? These
pupils represent only a very small proportion of school absentees
in UK and most of them are already on the school roll.
We know that the government’s intention is to tackle
truancy problem as a whole. Learnfare in US has failed to do
1 L Quinn, “Using Threats of
Poverty to Promote School Attendance: Implications of
Wisconsin’s Learnfare Experiment for Families”, Journal
of Children and Poverty, Vol 1, no 2: 1995,
2 D Cattanach, state
auditor, An Evaluation of Implication of Learnfare
Expansion, Legislative Audit Bureau, State of Wisconsin,
3 D Long, J Gueron, R Wood,
R Fisher, V Fellerath, Final Report on Ohio’s Welfare
Initiative to Improve School Attendance Among Teenage Parents –
Ohio’s Learning Earning and Parenting Program, Manpower
Demonstration Research Corporation, 1997
4 A Barbosa, New York
Learnfare Falls Short, The Education Priority Panel,
Also see ABT Associates, “ABT Associates Find Welfare
Children Miss More School than Others.” ABT Associates
Publication, April, 2000.
Ming Zhang is principal education welfare officer, Royal
Borough of Kingston upon Thames.