The Wake County school system announced Tuesday it is suspending its driver’s education program amid uncertainty about state funding this school year.
David Neter, Wake’s chief business officer, 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,
“This decision was not made lightly,” Neter said. “We realize it directly impacts our parents and our students. There simply is no funding to provide driver’s education training at this time.”
North Carolina school districts are operating under a temporary state spending plan that includes no funding for driver’s education. Neter 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.
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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.
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 school board member Bill Fletcher. “Even worse, there will be ramifications that we can’t imagine from the elimination of teaching assistants.”