Wake drops driver’s ed, but CMS will hold on for now

Jordan Driving School instructor Robert Escamilla talks with student driver Courtney Barron, a rising sophomore at Cary High School in June.
Jordan Driving School instructor Robert Escamilla talks with student driver Courtney Barron, a rising sophomore at Cary High School in June.

The Wake County school system announced Tuesday it is suspending its driver’s education program amid uncertainty about state funding this school year, but Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders said they’ll wait a couple more weeks before making changes.

North Carolina school districts are operating under a temporary state spending plan that includes no funding for driver’s education. David Neter, the Wake school district’s chief business officer, said it’s costing the state’s largest school system $250,000 a month to provide driver’s education, which serves 12,000 students annually in Wake County.

At a Tuesday back-to-school news conference, CMS Superintendent Ann Clark cited the uncertainty about money for driver’s education as one of the many challenges of the delayed budget. She said the state makes local districts responsible for providing the program but isn’t paying the bill.

But Clark stopped short of saying the classes would end. After a query about Wake’s decision, CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said CMS will wait until Aug. 31, the state’s second deadline extension for the budget that was supposed to take effect July 1, to make decisions.

“We’d like to emphasize that CMS will comply with the law and will evaluate our options once a final budget is approved,” McCoy said.

In Wake, Neter told the school board that no new classroom or behind-the-wheel classes will be offered after Friday. But Neter said that students who’ve already begun the behind-the-wheel portion will be allowed to finish the program.

Wake school board vice Chairman Tom Benton said families shouldn’t give up hope yet because the program could resume in two weeks if the General Assembly agrees to fund driver’s ed before the temporary budget plan expires Aug. 31.

“I believe most of our leaders want to do the right thing,” Benton said.

But it’s uncertain whether the funding will be provided after House and Senate leaders announced Tuesday they had agreed to a $21.74 billion budget spending level. That’s about $415 million less than the original House proposal that included $27 million to continue driver’s education.

Under North Carolina’s graduated licensing program for young drivers, driver’s education is currently mandatory for anyone younger than 18 who applies to get a learner’s permit. Students get 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel.

At least one-third of North Carolina’s school systems suspended their driver’s education programs this summer because they didn’t know whether they’d receive state money to help pay for the classes.

CMS has a contract with Jordan Driving School to provide the lessons.

The House budget would have continued funding for the driver’s ed classes now taken by 120,000 high school students each year. The Senate budget would have eliminated all funding and moved driver’s ed to the state’s community colleges, where students might be charged as much as $400 for the program.

School board members said they’re also worried about the potential loss of thousands of teacher assistant positions statewide. Under the Senate budget, Wake’s funding for teacher assistants would be cut 80 percent over the next two years from $39 million a year to $7.7 million annually.

“There are going to be a lot of things that we do not yet know that will be ramifications of the driver’s ed thing,” said Wake school board member Bill Fletcher. “Even worse, there will be ramifications that we can’t imagine from the elimination of teaching assistants.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui