By Rose Hoban
Forty-five dollars doesn’t sound like enough money to keep a high school student from participating in an after school activity, but for hundreds, even thousands of students state-wide, a new 45 dollar fee is keeping them from participating in driver education.
Until last year, students could enroll in driver education in North Carolina schools free of charge. But in last year’s budget, lawmakers at the General Assembly trimmed $5 million out of the state’s $32 million fund for driver education in high schools.
To make up the shortfall, legislators gave school districts the option of levying a fee of up to $45 for driver ed.
“Legislators say $45 is not a budget buster,” said Connie Sessoms, Driver Education program specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, “but when you add that on to a hundred dollars for an athletic fee, money for a band instrument, school supplies, clothes. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back for many families.”
About half the state’s local school systems are charging the $45 fee, said Reginald Flythe, the coordinating teacher for Wake County driver education. Wake County is charging the fee, but he said it proved problematic from the start.
“The bill was ratified, vetoed, overridden and became state law before we could even get it on the school board’s agenda (last summer),” Flythe told a meeting of the Teen Road Safety workgroup of a legislative task force on child safety yesterday.
“So we were registering kids for summer driver ed all spring without the fee, and we couldn’t charge them that fee after the fact, so we lost about $92,000.”
Flythe has comparison data to show enrollment in driver education in the first two months of 2012 is down by about 20 percent over the same time period last year. Overall, Flythe says Wake County has had 352 fewer driver ed students than last year.
“The only difference between last year and this is the fee,” he said.
Sessoms said he’s seen a similar trend in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, where the officials had to put 22 out of the district’s 85 driver ed instructors on ‘stand-by’.
He also said he’s heard from driver ed teachers in less well-heeled rural counties that their programs may have to stop taking students part-way through the school year.
“So, maybe they only have money to teach up to May then they shut down until the next fiscal year,” Sessoms said.
What worries Flythe and Sessoms is the idea some of these students will wait until they are 18 when they won’t need instruction to receive a license, and that could make them more unsafe as drivers.
An analysis of accident data from Texas shows that after discontinuing driver ed state-wide in the 90s and instituting “Parent-Taught Driver Education,” more new drivers committed traffic offenses, ended up in more accidents, and those accidents were more serious.
Research shows that keeping younger adolescents off the road reduces accidents, but what matters most in preventing accidents is driving experience, said Arthur Goodwin, from the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC Chapel Hill told the group.
“We’re seeing a general reduction of teen licensing because of the economy, but it’s startling that the fee would have such an effect,” Goodwin said.
Teens taking driver education get up to 30 hours of classroom instruction and then get behind-the-wheel training in vehicles kitted out with passenger side brakes and extra mirrors for instructors.
“If not anything else, they hear the safety message over and over and over,” Flythe said. “The main thing we’re trying to do is save lives and teach people to make good choices on the road. I feel like the few dollars they’ll save is not going to be worth the cost in increased accidents later.”
Districts receive about $198 per student for driver ed, down from $236 last year. If the predicted number of students don’t show up in a program, school officials have to return the excess to the state.
The state also allocates the following year’s money based on the prior year’s enrollment. Flythe said he worries that counties will get smaller allocations next year based on this year’s enrollment. Then if economy improves over the next year, and students return to driver ed, counties could find themselves even more short of cash for the 2012-13 school year.
The group will bring a request to legislators to reinstate full funding for next year.