Phil McGirt has run Cumberland County’s driver’s education program for around 40 years and believes it is to thank for keeping North Carolina’s roads safer than they otherwise might be.
But on June 30, money will run out for the state-mandated program, unless lawmakers act to restore funding for local districts to continue its operation.
If they don’t, school districts will be forced to raid other funds to pay for driver’s ed—or, if state law is amended, shift the full cost of running the program to families, which is somewhere between $300 and $400 per student.
“It is going to impact the safety of everybody on the road,” said McGirt of the legislature’s reluctance to fund driver’s education. “It will not only affect the students, it will affect everybody – you’ll have a road full of untrained drivers. Funding needs to be restored.”
And for districts that provide the bulk of driver’s education training programs during the summer months, the June 30 drop dead date has them scrambling as they begin to register students, knowing that with funding uncertain many may be forced to drop out if they have to pay as much as $400 to take the course.
WHEREAS, it has now become a matter of necessity for the State of North Carolina to attempt to teach its youth in the public schools of the State safe driving habits and the inherent dangers of motor vehicles when improperly operated.
Those words were enshrined in law in 1953, when North Carolina first began requiring—and paying for—its public schools to provide driver training and safety education to students. Today the program trains roughly 100,000 students each year.
Funds for the program have come from the Highway Trust Fund as well as the general fund. Citizens used to pay a surcharge on their vehicle registration and renewal fees that went specifically to a line item for driver’s education, but during the 1980s that $3 surcharge became a fee that went into the general pot of money rather than being earmarked for driver’s ed.
Now that the funding mechanism has become separated from the legislative mandate that schools provide driver’s education, lawmakers are able to allow funds to run out for the program.
Last year, the legislature made the decision to allow the $26 million that is appropriated for driver’s education on a recurring basis to sunset on June 30 of this year.
Governor Pat McCrory released his budget last week and did not include an extension of funding for driver’s education. His education advisor, Eric Guckian, told N.C. Policy Watch on Wednesday that the Governor had to make some tough choices in an era of limited funds.
“We chose to direct funds toward the classroom with this budget,” said Guckian.
Tazra Mitchell, a policy analyst for the N.C. Budget & Tax Center, said that the era of limited funds is a self-inflicted choice on the part of lawmakers.
“Driver’s education has been funded out of the general fund and transportation budgets,” said Mitchell. “Both pots of money have been cut by tax decisions made by the General Assembly.”
Mitchell explained that the 2013 tax plan in addition to capping the gas tax has made it difficult for the state to collect sufficient revenues to reinvest in important programs like driver’s education.
And if local school districts are faced with an unfunded mandate to provide driver’s education, then cuts to other areas of education – and possibly the classroom –would be difficult to avoid, in spite of the Governor’s intention to preserve classroom funding.
Cumberland County schools stands to lose $700,000 from the state that would support the operation of driver’s education.
“That means we would have to find that by looking at cutting teachers and other things,” Cumberland County Schools Superintendent Frank Till told WRAL last week.
The possibility of no state funds for driver’s education is especially problematic for the nearly half of all school districts—including Wake and Charlotte-Mecklenburg– that enter into contracts with private vendors to provide driver’s education to their students.
“They don’t know what to put in those contracts,” said Reggie Flythe, coordinator of driver’s education programs at the Department of Public Instruction. Without financial assurances from the state, said Flythe, entering into contractual relationships is a risky endeavor.
As for finding local funds to make up for the loss of state appropriations, Flythe said, “the local sources of funding in a lot of counties are just nonexistent.”
“These budgets are stretched to the hilt,” said Flythe.
If lawmakers choose not to restore funding for driver’s education, then local school districts will make another ask to the legislature: allow them to shift the cost of the program –anywhere from $300-400—to families.
It’s not the first preference for local school boards, says Leanne Winner, a lobbyist for the NC School Boards Association.
“If the General Assembly decides that’s not something they are willing to do [fund driver’s education], our next request is that we be allowed to charge the full amount so we are not taking away financial resources from the district,” said Winner.
North Carolina law currently allows local school districts to charge up to $65 per student to participate in driver’s education as a way of offsetting the difference between current state appropriations and the real cost of providing the training.
Connie Sessoms, executive secretary of the North Carolina Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (NCDTSEA), says that if the state abandons its responsibility to fund driver’s ed and shifts its entire cost to taxpayers, there could be devastating consequences for the citizenry.
“If parents have to pay the full cost of driver’s education, we expect to lose 50 percent of our students,” said Sessoms. “That means students who can’t drive and have after school jobs that support their families won’t be able to get to those jobs, so that will create a larger economic divide between our students.”
Sessoms predicts more unlicensed drivers will get on the road as a consequence of the state’s disinvestment in driver’s education.
“You’ll have kids who will ignore the law and drive anyway,” said Sessoms. “And unlicensed and uninsured drivers who hit someone and kill them…you have all that to deal with.”
North Carolina has a graduated licensure program, which means that 16 and 17 year olds must participate in driver’s education in order to get a license. If they don’t or cannot afford to participate, then they must wait until they turn 18 to apply for a driver’s license, when no training is necessary.
While there is not a large body of research to show that driver’s education reduces traffic fatalities, there is research that proves graduated licensure programs– like North Carolina’s – reduce accidents and save lives. And driver’s education is a component of graduated licensure.
Cumberland County’s Phil McGirt is worried how all of this will affect safety.
“I know that if parents have to pay the entire cost [of driver’s education], a lot of students will wait until their 18th birthdays to get their license and they will have had no training. So you’ll have highways full of untrained drivers,” said McGirt.
“This program needs to be state funded,” McGirt added.
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-841-1460 or [email protected]