Ohio Helps Welfare Mothers Finish School New Study Shows That States Can Target Assistance to Young Teenage Parents and Encourage Most to Stay in High School

Article excerpt

THE high school students in Bonnie Beckman's early afternoon class are discussing today's assignment: to guess the proper fairy tale from an oblique headline. But conversation quickly moves from their views of the fairy tales to talk about whose child likes what story.

"My son likes that book: `The People in the Neighborhood.' "

"My oldest son - his father's in jail."

"When are you due?" Ms. Beckman asks a pregnant teen at one point. "June? And you are going to the prom in May?"

So it goes with some of America's most disadvantaged youths - teenage parents. A look at the statistics shows that many of them are drifting toward failure.

They are among the most likely students to drop out of school. From there, it's a short step to long-term welfare dependence. More than half of all welfare households are headed by women who first gave birth before they were 20. Total public costs to support them: nearly $22 billion a year.

A three-year-old program here in Ohio, however, is throwing them a lifeline. And it can help them swim against the tide, according to a report released yesterday.

"We were somewhat surprised by how well it seems to be working," says Dan Bloom, lead author of a new study of the program from the respected Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). "The evidence shows that it does have some effect on people's school enrollment and attendance behavior."

The MDRC study found that 61.3 percent of teens already in school continued to attend classes when they were eligible for the Ohio program, called LEAP (Learning, Earning, and Parenting). That's a significant jump over those students who were not made eligible for LEAP, of whom only 51.1 percent continued on. The gap was even wider for teens who had already dropped out. With LEAP, 46.8 percent came back to school at some point during the year. Without it, only 33.4 percent went back.

These results are the most concrete evidence so far that states can target help to young welfare parents and keep more of them in school. The hope is that more schooling will allow these youngsters to move off welfare rolls and into jobs. Six-year evaluation

It's too early to tell whether that's happening in Ohio, Mr. Bloom says. The MDRC plans to find that out in the next phase of its six-year evaluation of the program. The social research group was founded by the Ford Foundation and a consortium of federal agencies to test such things.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect about LEAP is that it pays teenage parents to stay in school. Those who miss no more than two school days a month (without a valid excuse) get an extra $62 in their monthly welfare check. Those who don't get docked $62. The bonuses and sanctions can play an important role in a welfare family's income, since a mother with one child typically receives $274 a month.

The program is mandatory for every Ohio teen parent who has custody of a child, is on welfare, and does not have a high school diploma or equivalent degree. The cost is relatively low - about $300 per teenager per year. Some 20,000 teens have passed through LEAP since the program started in 1989.

Several other states, such as Maryland and Virginia, are experimenting with similar programs that offer financial incentives for school attendance.

One of the states with the longest experience with such incentives is Wisconsin. …