State Politics

Legislators look to tweak driver’s ed in budget deal

Sherese Lingard, 16, looks behind the car before reversing during the the behind-the-wheel portion of driver's education program run by Jordan Driving School Wednesday, August 19, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.
Sherese Lingard, 16, looks behind the car before reversing during the the behind-the-wheel portion of driver's education program run by Jordan Driving School Wednesday, August 19, 2015 in Raleigh, N.C.

As legislators work toward a budget agreement by next week, negotiators said Thursday that they want to tweak driver’s ed programs and ensure that a deal to fund teacher assistants will last for several years.

House and Senate negotiators plan to spend Labor Day weekend at the Legislative Building in hopes of reaching a deal by early next week. But while the Senate made a written offer Monday to fund teacher assistants and driver’s ed – two items that chamber had wanted to cut – the House hasn’t yet agreed to the terms.

“I’d say 95 percent of (the education budget) was worked through last night,” said Sen. Harry Brown, the Senate’s lead negotiator. “There is still some discussion to make sure everybody fully understands what the agreement is.”

Before restoring funding for high school driver’s ed programs, Brown said senators are looking to make some changes.

“If you’re going to fund it, let’s get the program as right as we can get it, and that’s part of the discussion,” he said Thursday.

Brown pointed to what he considers “problems” identified in a recent study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which found no consistency across the state in overseeing driver’s ed teachers.

The report called for a single state agency to oversee driver’s ed programs, setting a curriculum and end-of-course testing. It said the programs should better engage parents and have standards for training and certifying instructors.

Wake County schools are among several around the state that have suspended driver’s ed programs while funding for the program remains uncertain.

In other budget developments Thursday:

Teacher assistant limbo to end? Elementary school teacher assistants haven’t had much job security lately. The Senate sought to cut funding for the positions in last year’s budget, and the chamber’s spending plan this year would have eliminated 5,000 positions in order to hire 2,000 more teachers and reduce class sizes.

Now that both chambers are willing to fund teacher assistants at last year’s level, House Rules Chairman David Lewis said legislators want to avoid having the same debate in future years.

“I am very hopeful that we are very close to a resolution that would not only resolve that issue for the current school year, but for school years going forward,” Lewis said. “That’s one of the reasons this is taking as long as it is. We’re not trying to make this a one-time fix.”

Rep. Chuck McGrady, a House budget co-chair, said the teacher assistant issue is among those that have slowed the negotiations. “Every time we seem to move forward, we seem to hit a speed bump,” he said.

When will the process end? House and Senate leaders voiced optimism Thursday that a final budget agreement is in sight and could be released next week.

Negotiators will stay in Raleigh over the Labor Day weekend to work out remaining disagreements.

“I think you’ll see a finished product sometime maybe Monday,” Brown said, “but then you’ve got to clean it up, and it may be Wednesday before you actually see it.”

Once the two sides have an agreement, legislative staffers will need two to three days to draft the formal budget bill. Then House rules require the final budget to be available “for public inspection” for at least 72 hours before any votes.

That means the earliest possible vote would likely be next Friday or early the week of Sept. 14. “I feel confident it will be a few days before” the current temporary budget expires on Sept. 18, Lewis said.

Are negotiators making progress? Senate leader Phil Berger says yes.

“The last two weeks have been much different than the previous weeks,” he said Thursday. “Folks are getting together, they’re talking about things, there are concessions being made. There are folks that are getting frustrated and stepping away for a little while, but they’re coming back together. I just feel much better about this situation than I have in the past.”