Politics & Government

A third of NC schools suspend driver’s education

A 2011 file photo shows Alexandria Hurley, then 14, learning to drive under the supervision of Jordan Driving School instructor Thomas Hunter in Apex.
A 2011 file photo shows Alexandria Hurley, then 14, learning to drive under the supervision of Jordan Driving School instructor Thomas Hunter in Apex. NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

At least one-third of North Carolina’s school systems are suspending their driver’s education programs this summer until they learn whether they’ll receive any state money to help pay for the classes.

Driver’s education classes typically run all day during the summer when school is out, but some school officials are deciding they can’t hold the program when they aren’t even sure they’ll still be required to offer the instruction.

The House budget would continue state funding for the driver’s ed classes now taken by 120,000 high school students each year. The Senate budget eliminates all funding and moves driver’s ed to the state’s community colleges.

The General Assembly approved a temporary budget Tuesday to run the state until Aug. 14, but the spending plan includes no state money for school districts to provide driver’s education.

Out of North Carolina’s 115 school districts, 43 are suspending their driver’s education programs, and 30 haven’t responded to a survey yet, according to Reggie Flythe, driver education consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction. Guaranteed state funding ran out when the 2014-15 fiscal year ended Tuesday.

“You’re talking about a substantial amount of money to run the program in the summer,” Flythe said.

Some districts such as Wake County, Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Charlotte-Mecklenburg are continuing to offer new classes over the summer. Durham Public Schools will run one class on July 6, but no others are scheduled for the summer.

Districts such as Guilford County are shutting down their programs. Other districts such as Johnston County are serving only students who had started driver’s education before Wednesday.

“This isn’t our decision,” said Tracey Peedin Jones, a Johnston County schools spokeswoman. “This is up to the legislature. We encourage people who have concerns to contact the legislature. We have concerns, too.”

Lawmakers at odds

But it appears that legislators are still far apart on what to do with driver’s education.

House budget writers on Tuesday criticized the Senate proposals to eliminate driver’s ed class as a requirement for a learner’s permit and to cut off all state funding.

“Which means it’s going to have to come from either some sort of private donation or out of the pockets of parents or young people taking the driver’s ed class,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee. “They pretty much said continue the program and go find your own money.”

Rep. Grier Martin, a Wake County Democrat, said the Senate provision is “an unfunded mandate.”

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.

House and Senate leaders agreed a few years ago to stop diverting gas tax money away from the Department of Transportation to pay for other things, including driver’s education. They gradually cut funding and authorized local schools to collect a fee from students to help cover the cost of driver’s ed.

Proposed new revenue source

The House budget would let local schools continue charging a $65 fee for driver’s ed, and it would tap a new state revenue source to help pay for the classes in the future: a motor vehicle registration late fee, worth $27 million a year.

North Carolina high schools should not stop teaching students how to drive, Torbett said.

“I think there’s nothing more important than having a young man or woman understand the rules of the road, how to properly operate a vehicle,” he said. “To me, that’s just as critical to their life as math and English and learning how to balance a checkbook.”

In the continuing budget resolution adopted by the legislature this week, local school officials are authorized to collect the $65 driver’s ed fee – but they are not assured of state funding to cover the rest of the cost.

Wake classes to continue

Wake school officials say they plan to continue offering driver’s education for now, with students paying the $65 fee, although they may not get the $191 per student that the state provided last year.

Flythe, the DPI consultant, said that big districts such as Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg would never get caught up on their backlog if they suspended driver’s education during the summer. In Wake, 12,000 teens annually go through driver’s ed.

Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman, pointed to how state law requires school districts to offer driver’s education to every student in public, private and home schools who wants the program.

But Peedin Jones, the Johnston County spokeswoman, said state law doesn’t specify when they have to offer the classes.

She said school leaders want to know what the state will do before repeating the scenario that resulted in the school system needing $100,000 in local funds to pay for driver’s education this school year.

“What if they don’t fund it?” Peedin Jones said. “We don’t have the money in the budget.”

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