Thousands of Wake County teenagers are in limbo, waiting to see when they’ll be able to complete driver’s education to get their learner’s permits.
This week, the Wake County school system joined other North Carolina school districts in suspending driver’s education until it sees whether state funding will be provided for the program. Wake school officials estimate that the more than 3,300 students who have completed the 30 hours of classroom instruction will be unable to begin the required six hours of behind-the-wheel training because of the suspension of driver’s ed.
Parents and students have complained to school officials and state lawmakers about the funding impasse, which could delay when teens receive their driver’s licenses. Amanda Mixon’s 14-year-old daughter is among the teens who don’t know yet when they’ll get their behind-the-wheel instruction.
“We’re in limbo, and other kids are like mine,” Mixon said Wednesday. “They’re approaching 15 quickly, and they want to get their license when they turn 16. But it’s getting dimmer and dimmer.”
Wake school leaders have expressed sympathy for the plight of the families, but they say they can’t afford to continue operating what has been a mostly state-funded program, with $250,000 a month in local dollars.
“It’s the only choice we have as a district given that the state has dried up the money,” Wake school board member Bill Fletcher said at Tuesday’s board meeting.
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.
The House and Senate have been wide apart on whether to continue funding driver’s ed.
Under North Carolina’s graduated licensing program, students are supposed to get 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel.
The House budget provided $27 million for the driver’s ed classes now taken by 120,000 high school students each year. The Senate budget 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.
With no budget in place, temporary state spending plans through Aug. 31 have provided no funding for driver’s education. House and Senate leaders announced Tuesday that they had agreed to a $21.74 billion budget spending level, but it’s uncertain what would be provided for driver’s education because the amount is about $415 million less than the House budget.
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 would receive state money to help pay for the classes. Wake had held out though, offering more than 80 classes during the summer.
“We’ve been monitoring the situation closely, and we wanted to provide the opportunity for as long as we could,” said Lisa Luten, a Wake schools spokeswoman.
But after Friday, no new classroom training is scheduled. Wake is allowing students who’ve already begun the behind-the-wheel portion to complete their instruction, but no driving sessions for new students are scheduled after this week.
School leaders say they’ll notify families about the future of the program once the state budget is adopted.
On Wednesday, 35 Wake teens continued the classroom instruction at Enloe High School in Raleigh, uncertain about when they’ll be able to take the driving portion.
“I’m just bummed,” said Koy Holt, 14, a home-schooler from Wendell attending the class at Enloe. “I wanted to get my permit as quickly as I could.”
State law requires school districts to offer driver’s education to every student in public, private and home schools in their districts who wants the program. In Wake, 12,000 teens annually go through the district’s program, which is contracted to Jordan Driving School.
Koy’s mom, Ashley, is glad that her son was able to at least get the classroom training in before the program was suspended. But the reaction on social media to Wake’s suspension of driver’s ed has been more critical.
“@WCPSS this is unacceptable,” tweeted parent Ryan Boyles, who asked whether Wake planned to refund registration fees for students who already started driver’s ed but now don’t have a completion date.
School board members and some online posters pointed the blame at lawmakers.
Terry Stoops, director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank that’s been generally supportive of the Republican-led General Assembly, said he suspects driver’s ed will continue with less state funding. In that scenario, parents would be asked to pay more than the $65 fee that school districts are now allowed to charge to supplement the state dollars.
“Now that there’s a spending cap and an end in sight, I think the criticism of how long they took to present a budget is really off base,” Stoops said. “We know the final budget is in sight. Ideally it would have been done earlier, but it hasn’t.”