Privilege license: limiting driver ed to those who can afford it

If you’re in public education in North Carolina, you can find a lot not to like about the N.C. Senate’s proposed budget, but one controversial item in particular will have a immediate negative impact on parents as well as school districts.

The N.C. Senate is refusing to go along with an N.C. House proposal to restore state funding for driver education programs. That means the cost of providing a program mandated by the state as part of its graduated licensing program would be borne by school districts and parents. For parents, the cost per child for the 36-hour course could be as much as $400.

As you may remember, the 2014 General Assembly eliminated $26 million in annual funding that had for years supported driver education instruction offered through public schools. That funding stream is scheduled to dry up at the end of this month. Naturally, the change alarmed school districts and parents who would be stuck with the bill for a program required by the state as part of its graduated licensing program. It also drew criticism from the several driver training companies in the state that contract with school districts to provide instruction; without state participation, their business model changes drastically, their revenue goes south and jobs disappear.

These and other considerations persuaded the N.C. House to include the driver ed money in the two-year budget plan members approved a few weeks back — a one-time allocation of $26 million for fiscal 2016 and an annually recurring appropriation of $27 million for fiscal 2017 and following years. The plan also caps student fees for driver education at $65 per student.

Of course, the N.C. Senate has its own thoughts about a new state budget. One of them is that driver education isn’t that important. Its budget plan contains no money for driver ed and erases the cap on student fees, authorizing local school boards to provide the instruction and charge a student fee up to the actual cost of providing the training, estimated to run $300 to $400 per student in some districts. (See pages 75-78 and 102-103 http://tinyurl.com/no4dnv8)

There is some sentiment among Senate Republicans for shifting the driver ed program to community colleges by 2016. Why? We have no idea, particularly since the students who need instruction are high school students, ages 14 1/2 to 18. How would the program move to community colleges? Don’t know that either, since senators have no plan to fund the change. Regardless, if the Senate has its way, the responsibility for providing driver ed this summer and next school year will fall squarely on school districts and the bill will go to school district and parents.

For years, LCPS has been able to offer driver ed without cost to students or parents. The $198 cost per student was covered by state funds. Beginning next month, unless the House plan prevails in budget negotiations, LCPS will have to charge at least $65 per student and, even at that rate, divert $100,000 to driver education from resources that would otherwise support instructional and operational aims. The unavoidable and undeniable result of the Senate’s having its way on this issue is that fewer young people will get driver education training. They will have to wait until age 18 to drive legally and, once behind the wheel, they will be less prepared.

What the Senate sees as a money matter is really a safety issue. Driving is a complex skill that can only be honed by experience. Driver education classes lay the groundwork for the road experience young people gain gradually through the state’s graduated licensing system. It is, as it has been for years, the point where safe driving begins. By erecting a financial barrier between a teen’s desire to drive and the proper training he needs to drive safely, the Senate plan will make the roads more dangerous for all of us and limit the training to those who can afford it.

The N.C. Senate needs to side with the House on this issue and restore state funding to a program that could be a matter of life and death for North Carolina’s teens. Get in touch with your state senator and tell him so. For Lenoir County residents, here’s how:

— Sen. Louis Pate; phone: 919-733-5621; email: Louis.Pate@ncleg.net; address: N.C. Senate, 16 W. Jones St., Room 1028, Raleigh, NC 27601-2808

— Sen. Don Davis; phone: 919-715-8363; email: Don.Davis@ncleg.net; address: N.C. Senate, 300 N. Salisbury St., Room 519, Raleigh, NC 27603-5925