Road Worrier Blog

Driver’s ed was improving until state funds were cut off

Sherese Lingard, 16, checks behind the car during a driver’s education program run by Jordan Driving School.
Sherese Lingard, 16, checks behind the car during a driver’s education program run by Jordan Driving School. jhknight@newsobserver.com

When state funding for driver’s education ran out at the end of June, it was as if our grumpy legislators had hit the brakes in the middle of a noisy intersection, slammed the transmission into “park” and walked away – with the engine still running.

Hey, it’s been more than two months. What point are they trying to make? Do they plan to come back and move the car?

The suspension of driver’s ed might not have quite the sweeping impact of other issues left hanging, such as the matter of classroom teachers’ aides, while our dysfunctional one-party legislature puts off adopting a budget for the fiscal year that began 10 weeks ago. But it matters to 120,000 teens who want to learn how to drive this year, and to their parents.

It’s the Senate that wants to stop driver’s ed funding forever, and to stop requiring that kids learn about driving before they start driving. As I mentioned in a recent Road Worrier column, the Senate would make parents provide more hours of front-seat supervision for teen drivers – as a replacement for formal classroom and behind-the-wheel teaching.

This may explain why hordes of unhappy parents are calling their senators. And why a few senators summoned me to the Legislative Office Building last week for a 30-minute class in Road Worrier’s ed.

The short title of this course was: Driver’s ed is junk, and we blame the Department of Public Instruction.

My head teacher cited his responsibility for state dollars, as Senate education budget co-chairman, and his experience driving cars, motorcycles, heavy equipment and Army attack helicopters.

“I’ve seen what it means to drive, fly, instruct,” said Sen. Dan Soucek, a Boone Republican. “And in all those areas, the only thing that makes you better is time behind the wheel. That is the critical element. There is nothing you can learn in a classroom that comes anywhere close to that.”

DPI ‘completely failed’

Joined by two senior legislative staffers and Republican Sens. Stan Bingham of Denton and Fletcher Hartsell of Concord, he declared that DPI “has completely failed” in providing driver’s ed.

“They are mandated to supervise the program,” Soucek said. “We have an unsupervised, uneffective program that we’re spending $26 million a year on. ... We need to have a program that actually has some evidence of making our students safer drivers.”

Success is hard to measure, educators say. Teen crashes and deaths have declined in recent years. Some credit is given to the graduated licensing program, which is based on the twin pillars of driver’s ed and parental supervision.

Soucek brandished a critical 2014 legislative staff report – whose authors were in the room, nodding their heads sternly. It shows that 59 percent of the teens who took the Division of Motor Vehicles written test flunked it in 2008.

Yes, but I observed that the same report shows steady improvement since then – to a 33 percent failure rate in 2013. Soucek countered that DMV test scores improved only because the state started charging fees for driver’s ed class, and fewer teens took the class and the test.

He said the legislature has given DPI the money and the mandate to run driver’s ed with a uniform statewide curriculum, holding local schools accountable for the state money they receive.

“We don’t have any kind of uniform system,” Soucek said. “Money’s thrown out there and they say, ‘Do whatever you want. Don’t report back.’ ...

“We had to say we’re not going to fund this unless you show us something that is better. It’s the only way to get people’s attention.”

Oversight welcomed

The suspension of state funding did more than get attention. It ended the employment of DPI’s driver’s ed coordinator, Reggie Flythe. It halted the work Flythe was doing to strengthen the state program and to improve students’ DMV test scores.

“That whole business about DPI not cooperating – once Reggie got there, all of that changed,” said Connie Sessoms, who runs the local driver’s ed program in Charlotte and is executive director of the N.C. Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association.

Local teachers had welcomed the legislature’s push a few years ago for more state oversight, he said.

“We took that to heart,” Sessoms said. “We set about changing the course that driver education in North Carolina was traveling. But then the General Assembly came back and moved the goal post. … They still talk about how we don’t have a standard curriculum. Well yes, we do.”

Ben Matthews, a deputy chief financial officer at DPI, answers all the driver’s ed calls now that Flythe has been laid off. He said Senate criticism of the agency’s past performance was justified, but the agency made considerable progress after hiring Flythe two years ago.

“For quite some time here in the department before I took it over in 2012, in my opinion it had not gotten the oversight it needed,” Matthews said. “Reggie came in, and between the two of us, boy, we took off.”

Matthews credited Flythe with making local school officials more responsive to DPI’s direction and building a broad-based statewide advisory council for driver’s ed. He had begun working with DMV to make its driver’s test conform more closely with what teens learn in driver’s ed class.

Senate leaders said last week they were looking for a way to restore state funding. Even if they do, and local schools resume driver’s ed classes, Matthews doubts Flythe will want his old job back.

While senators blame DPI, Sessoms and Matthews blame the Senate.

“To say DPI let this program go is a lie – let’s rephrase that – a misunderstanding of what was going on over here,” Matthews said. “We had the train moving down the tracks, and they knew it.”

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