High school students and their parents are starting to feel the effects of the state’s elimination of driver education funds that takes effect July 1, a cut that will affect nearly all students entering ninth grade in the next school year.
“Students already want to enroll in driver education for July, and we have to charge a $65 fee for classes starting that month,” noted Watauga County Schools Human Resources Director Dr. Stephen Martin, who oversees driver education for the school system. “We didn’t charge a fee this year because state funding paid for the program, so this is a big change for our families and the school system. What makes it even more difficult is that the fee only covers about one third of the cost of the program. That means we’ll have to cut about $130 in other programs for every student that enrolls in driver education. That’s nearly all of our high school students at some point, and we also serve students from private schools and home schools.”
Martin noted that the lack of funding was delaying driver training for students that had hoped to enroll in the program in June. “Our contractor for driver education could serve more students in June, but we have no funds left for those students and we cannot charge them a fee. We would have to absorb the full cost of training for any additional students that take driver education before July 1 and that is not funded in our current budget.”
Well before the latest changes in program funding, WCS took action to make the program as economical as possible, cutting the cost of driver education roughly in half by contracting for the service. Students who obtain private driver education on their own typically pay $300-400 for the service compared to a total cost of $197 per student for the school system.
The state authorized school districts to charge a student fee of up to $65 for driver education beginning July 1. This fee will bring in about $20,000 in WCS, leaving about $41,000 in costs that will have to be paid for by cutting other programs. During the four years that a student is at Watauga High School, the school will have to cut a total of more than $160,000 in other programs to maintain driver training for students.
High schools in NC are required to offer driver education but students are not required to take it. However, students who do not take driver education have to wait until age 18 to obtain a driver’s license.
The decision to end funding for driver education is expected to leave more than 100,000 NC teens with no state funded driver training. Martin made the point that this is a potential safety concern as well as a budget issue. “Students that don’t take driver education can obtain a license at 18 without any training and without the graduated licensing that gives students supervised driving experience before operating a vehicle on their own. We think everyone will be safer if students receive the benefits of driver education before getting their driver’s license.”
There is still a possibility the General Assembly could undo the budget cut during its current session. “We very much hope the legislature will choose to fully restore driver education funding,” said Martin. “If they do, we will refund any fees we have collected. If they do not, then we will have to charge the fee and cut the budget elsewhere to comply with the state mandate to offer driver education.”
The state has funded driver education in high schools since 1957. The current budget for the program is $26 million, paid for largely through revenues from vehicle sales taxes and the motor fuels tax. Each penny of the state’s gasoline tax is estimated to raise about $50 million annually, making the cost of the program equal to approximately one-half cent on the gas tax.