Driver’s ed hits a curve

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 20, 2014

Something has to give in the coming year, if the state doesn’t restore $26 million that goes to fund the bulk of driver education programs in public school systems. Rowan-Salisbury Schools already is discussing the possibility it won’t receive a dime in state funding for the program in 2015-2016.

In its cut-first-think-about-the-ramifications-later mentality, the Republican-controlled legislature looks to have effectively undermined one of the great services provided by public schools — driver education. In addition, the lawmakers seem to be doing something they always complain about when Congress pulls the same trick on them: They are mandating a program without providing the funding.

State law requires public schools to provide driver’s education classes to students who are at least 14-and-a-half years old. This year, it caps what a school system can charge for the program at $65 per student, but Rowan-Salisbury Schools offers the classes and behind-the-wheel instruction for free.

Take away the state funding and the cap on what a school system can charge for driver education, and the cost per  Rowan-Salisbury student could be $300 to $375, just to  sustain the program at its current level. Needless to say, many students and their parents will not be able to afford that kind of cost, given the high percentage of students who already are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

Without the state subsidy, local school officials might end up begging the state to waive its requirement that schools provide driver education. The ramifications of either move — charging high fees for the driver ed or doing away with the program altogether — would be severe either way.

Fewer students would pursue the graduated licensing program if the fee for driver education is too high. Before the age of 18, a driver education certificate is required of anyone seeking a learner’s permit or license. Once a person is 18, he or she only has to pass the written and driving tests.

Teenagers usually require a driver’s license to hold a job in the summer, after school or on the weekends. Those in rural counties especially need to be able to drive to get to their places of employment, and students who wait until they are 18 to drive, miss out on two years of training, experience behind the wheel and employment opportunities.

The graduated licensing program requires 30 hours of classroom instruction, six hours of driving time and a year’s worth of supervised driving with experienced motorists. The current system surely cuts down on accidents, considering the alternative is cutting much lesser trained and experienced  18-year-olds loose on the roads. It also provides supplemental income for teachers who serve as instructors.

Last year, 1,631 public-, private- and home-schooled students took driver’s education through Rowan-Salisbury Schools. The local program encompasses 26 employees and a fleet of 23 cars.

This is state money well spent, and lawmakers should move quickly next year to make sure it has adequate state funding.