RALEIGH — High school students and their parents could soon have to pay more for drivers education classes if a state Senate proposal to cut state funding for the program prevails.
Currently, schools can charge students up to $55 for the course, but if the Senate’s budget proposal wins support over the House’s plan, which continues to fund drivers education, costs could rise substantially.
The change isn’t due to take effect until the 2015-2016 fiscal year, but students taking drivers education this summer could be affected.
That’s because the Senate’s proposed budget took the $26 million allotted for drivers education out of the Department of Transportation and moved it to the Department of Public Instruction. At the same time, the Senate cut 6 percent from school bus funding and told education department officials they could use the drivers ed money to make up the difference.
The proposal also removes the $55 cap and allows schools to charge the true cost of the program, which could be as much as $300 in some counties.
Reginald Flythe, the drivers ed consultant for DPI, said the department hasn’t decided how the money will be spent, and can’t say what it will do until the budget is finalized.
Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Republican from Fayetteville and co-chair of the transportation committee, said drivers ed should be part of the education budget because it occurs at the high school level.
“What we’ve tried to do for the last three years is anything that doesn’t maintain our highways we’ve been trying to get out of the Department of Transportation,” Meredith said.
Concern for new drivers
In North Carolina there are two routes for obtaining a drivers license. High school students age 15 to 18 can complete the graduated licensing program, which requires 30 hours of classroom training and six hours behind the wheel before they can get a learners permit. Then, drivers must log 60 hours of driving time with a parent before getting a license. Alternately, they can wait until they turn 18 and simply go to the Department of Motor Vehicles and take the driving tests.
Flythe said if the fee for drivers ed increases, fewer students will pursue the graduated licensing program, and more will wait until they turn 18.
After the state reduced funding for the program in 2011 and allowed school boards to charge $45 for the classes, there was a 10 percent decrease in the number of students who signed up, he said. The fee went to $55 in 2013.
Jennifer Ferrall-Flemming, whose daughter took drivers ed this summer at Broughton High School in Raleigh, said she wouldn’t have if the fees were higher. Any more than the current $55 would be too much, she said, and higher fees would hurt students who need to work.
“They need to learn how to drive as soon as possible so they could get to work as soon as possible,” Ferrall-Flemming said.
Kids who wait until they’re 18, Flythe said, miss out on two years of training and driving experience.
“The more training these students get, and the more information that we can provide them as they go through the graduated license program, the more we can feel comfortable there will be a reduction in accidents,” Flythe said.
Some parents argue the experience behind the wheel is too valuable to forgo. Kathy Hamilton, whose three children took drivers ed at Broughton, said knowing they received instruction before getting on the road gave her peace of mind. Cutting the funding would lead to more costs down the road because more accidents would occur, she said.
“It’s unfortunate, but what bothers me is there are people who couldn’t afford it,” said Hamilton, who lives in Raleigh. “It will end up being more expensive in the long run.”
Still, there are parents who wouldn’t mind seeing the drivers ed program eliminated.
Lisa Huffman of Raleigh said her parents taught her to drive and she would have done the same for her daughter if the class was not a requirement for a permit.
“It’s important, but if it wasn’t required by the state I don’t know if I’d send them,” Huffman said.
Wake County schools contract with Jordan Driving School, a private driving school based in Garner.
For each freshman in the Wake County school system, the state pays the driving school $168.80 for classroom and driving instruction. On average, 85 percent of high school students choose to take drivers ed. Funds left over from the other 15 percent help pay for resource materials, text books, audiovisual material, cars and insurance.
In Wake County, 1,400 students have already taken or are enrolled in drivers ed this summer, and the program is on track to reach last year’s summer enrollment of 4,125.
‘Nothing is off the table’
Devin Tanner, who oversees drivers ed for Wake County Public Schools, said he couldn’t speculate about how students in the pipeline would be affected if the Senate’s budget passes, but in terms of increasing the price of the course, he said, “nothing is off the table.”
Lorraine Jordan, the president of Jordan Driving School, said she was willing to work with the schools to keep costs down. She said drivers ed benefits more than just new drivers because it provides supplemental pay for teachers, who rely on the driving school income in the summer months and other school holidays.
“I can’t see them going from being the strongest state on driver education to having nothing. … We’re not sure how it would all work,” Jordan said.
Tim Simmons, a spokesperson for Wake County Public Schools, said county school officials are still reviewing the legislation, but it’s impossible to make a judgment call on how they will proceed before the bills are finalized.
“None of us know what the rest of the final budget numbers are,” Simmons said. “When you look at the disagreements that are now involved in the state budget, it’s just impossible to tell.”