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NC Senate’s budget plan could undermine driver’s education

driversed
Diedra Laird - dlaird@charlotteobserver.com
Student Faith Keenan, 16, gets into a driver’s education vehicle as she prepares for behind-the-wheel- instruction from Jim Smith Wednesday at Myers Park High School.

Parents could foot the bill when their children take driver’s education in public schools if the state Senate’s proposed budget gains traction in upcoming negotiations.

Connie Sessoms oversees driver’s education for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He said families could pay the full cost if the Senate budget proposal passes. Currently, schools in North Carolina can charge up to $55 for the program but no more.

In 2013, driver’s education cost about $335 per Charlotte-Mecklenburg student completing classroom instruction, according to a report given to a legislative oversight committee. The report did not give the cost of behind-the-wheel training.

About $3.28 million in local and state funds was spent for driver’s education – including in-class and behind-the-wheel training – in the county, according to the same report.

Chuck Lehning, who directs the Jordan Driving School in Charlotte, said other state money or local supplements could lessen the cost for families. The Jordan Driving school is an arm of the CMS driver’s education program and provides professional teachers for the school system.

“But parents need to have an idea that this funding could go away,” he said. “It would cost them a whole lot more than it does right now.”

The Senate’s proposed budget makes the $26 million for driver education a nonrecurring expense. This means that the state would have to approve the funding every year. Sessoms said the change would make funding more vulnerable to future cuts.

The budget would also cut $28 million from the Department of Public Instruction, including some funding for school buses. Officials then could use money previously slotted for driver education to make up the difference.

The House’s proposed budget does not change driver’s education funding. The legislature has begun negotiations between the two proposals, but leaders in Raleigh do not expect a final budget this week.

The state’s graduated licensing program requires 30 hours of classroom training and 12 hours of behind-the-wheel training with an instructor before students can get a learner’s permit. Then, after 60 hours of driving with a parent, students can test for a license when they turn 16.

Or they can wait until they are 18 and test for their license without taking classes or logging hours.

Sessoms said taking away state funds for the driver’s education program would undermine the graduated licensing program. He said some of the 120,000 students who go through the graduated licensing program each year would choose to bypass the classes to avoid paying.

Sessoms said they would wait until they are 18 years old, which would mean drivers with less training on the road.

Angel Harp, whose daughter is in a driver’s education class this summer, said having another driver will make life easier for the busy family. She said a higher price tag wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for her family, but it could be for others.

“I’m sure it’s going to a big issue for some families,” Harp said. “I’ve been there, where I couldn’t have afforded it.”

Since North Carolina launched the graduated licensing program in 1997, fatalities have decreased about 33 percent per 100 miles driven, according to statistics from the state Department of Transportation. The report said driver’s education was a reason for the decline, as were other factors, such as the law banning texting while driving.

Sessoms said taking away funding for driver education would cause the crash and fatality rate in the state to increase. “If I had to sum it up in one word, it would be ‘devastating,’ ” he said.

Williams: 704-358-5294; Twitter: @byclairew
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