Raleigh, N.C. — House and Senate budget negotiators said Thursday they're talking about continuing some level of state funding for driver's education programs in North Carolina high schools.
Driver's education funding has been dwindling since 2012. Last year, it was $26 million statewide. House budget writers extended that funding for 2015-16 in their spending plan, but both the Senate and Gov. Pat McCrory proposed zeroing it out.
The continuing resolutions under which the state has been operating since June 30 due to the budget impasse have not included any funding for driver's education, leaving school districts scrambling for alternative funding and driving schools at risk of closing their doors.
Senate leaders have been sharply critical of the program. Citing the high number of students who take the course but fail their driver's license exam at least once, they've argued that it doesn't accomplish its goal and therefore isn't a good use of taxpayer dollars.
Under current law, drivers under 18 must complete driver's education in order to qualify for a license. Senate leaders had proposed repealing that requirement and substituting more supervised practice time behind the wheel instead.
Thursday morning, senior budget chairman Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said the Senate is now in talks with the House to put some money back into the program, at least for the current school year.
House leaders confirmed those negotiations Thursday afternoon at a news conference.
Rep. Linda Johnson, R-Cabarrus, has been the House's chief proponent for driver's ed funding. She said a new report shows the course could be overhauled to make better use of technology, potentially with an online component, to prepare students to pass the license test.
"We're looking at studying that report and seeing what is the right steps to ensure that we don't – that we teach our children how to be safe drivers," Johnson said. "We know that equates to lives, and we want to make sure we make the right decision, and I think they’re agreeing with us on that. We’re still in early negotiations, but we believe there is room for us to come up with a solution for our teen drivers."
"If that doesn't convince them enough," added House Speaker Tim Moore, "they're welcome to ride with my 15-year-old, who has his permit now. That should be all they need."