RALEIGH — Thousands of teenagers decided to skip driver education class last year, after roughly half of North Carolina’s local schools started charging a fee to make up for a cut in state funding.
Now the General Assembly is considering a statewide plan to collect $45 from every teen who takes driver education, but not until after they complete the course and apply for their permit to drive.
Educators worry that a decline in instruction will lead to an increase in accidents involving young drivers. But they say the statewide approach might actually send more teens back into the classroom.
The $45 state fee is proposed in the budget approved Thursday by the Senate. It will be one of the items subject to negotiation when House and Senate members work out their budget differences.
Last year the General Assembly cut $5.2 million from state spending for classroom and behind-the-wheel driver education, which previously had been offered free of charge in North Carolina schools. Legislators said local schools and families should share in the cost. They gave local school officials a choice: Find another funding source to cover the shortfall, or charge a fee of up to $45.
Students opted out
Among school systems that responded to two surveys during the year, about half said they had begun charging fees that ranged from $20 to $45. And at these schools where driver education was no longer free, many students and parents decided they could not afford it.
“We had about a 20-percent drop-off in the numbers of kids taking the class,” said Bobby Guthrie, who oversees driver education for Wake County schools. Wake enrollment fell from 12,000 driver education students per year to 9,700 in the fiscal year that ends this month.
Instead of the usual 13,000 students who learn to drive in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools each year, enrollment fell to 10,700.
“We did get 10 or 15 calls through the year that said, ‘Can you waive this fee for me?’ ” said Connie Sessoms Jr., who oversees driver education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
“I guess some parents had to make a choice between ‘Do I put $45 into a tank of gas’ and ‘Do I pay $45 for this class.’ And it was, ‘Well, I’m going to choose the gas, because I need that now,’ ” he said.
Sessoms will take office in July as president of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. He serves now as executive director of a statewide driver education group.
He said other school systems also reported that some students had balked at paying for the class. In most cases, the schools made students pay the fee before they could start classroom training.
The Senate proposal would let them take the class for free – and then pay for it later, when they apply for learner’s permits.
Full state funding would be restored to local schools, and their authority to collect a local fee would be revoked. The state fee for a limited learner’s permit, now $15, would rise to $60. Teens who paid for private driver education would not have to pay the $45 fee.
This new approach on driver education was not mentioned in floor debate on the Senate budget this week. It is part of a push by Republican legislative leaders to change the way North Carolina spends gas tax money and other transportation revenue. While they cut taxpayer support for public transit, ferry service and driver education, they have set aside more money for roads and bridges.
Sessoms and Guthrie said they hoped the change would encourage more teens to take the free driver-education class – and then face a different calculation about whether to spend $60 for the learner’s permit.
“Hopefully, they will take driver education, which I think is important,” Guthrie said. “It’s not like 30 hours of classroom and six behind the wheel is a cure-all, but it gives you something to at least build on.”
Waiting until 18
Under North Carolina’s graduated licensing program for young drivers, driver education class is mandatory for anyone under 18 years old who applies for a learner’s permit. Once they turn 18, teens can get a license without the class, simply by passing the Division of Motor Vehicles’ tests.
“Some of them are waiting until they turn 18,” Sessoms said. “The danger is that a new driver at 18 is going to make the same mistakes a new driver at 16 would make. The more kids wait, the more you’re going to see the collision rates that involve 16-year-olds creep up to the 18-year-olds.”
Just a few years ago, Sessoms said, North Carolina was one of only three states that offered driver education classes for free. But officials in some states have changed their thinking.
Texas legislators cut spending and told parents to teach their kids to drive. “But after the crash rate went up about 25 percent, they backtracked on that,” Sessoms said. “Now Texas requires anybody under 21 to get driver education.”
And now there are eight states where taxpayers cover the full cost of driver education, he said. North Carolina is not one of them.
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