Raleigh, N.C. — Driver's education used to be provided free in all North Carolina high schools, but state lawmakers cut $5 million from the program last year, saying schools could make up the money by charging a fee of up to $45.
School officials say the fee is keeping thousands of students out of the program.
“There was no problem filling classes prior to this,” Broughton High School driver’s education teacher Beth Parsons said.
Parsons used to teach two classes a month, but it has been cut to one.
Reginald Flythe, driver’s education coordinator for Wake County schools, said enrollment numbers were steady until the fee was put in place last September.
“As of Sept. 1, we’ve had about a 20 percent reduction overall in the number of students who have entered the classroom phase of driver education,” Flythe said.
In North Carolina, teens have to go through driver's education in order to get a learner's permit. After that, they spend a year driving under supervision before being eligible for a full license.
Arthur Goodwin with the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center said the process, called graduated licensing, has significantly reduced deaths among teen drivers.
“One of the main factors why teens get in so many crashes is just inexperience,” Goodwin said. “That full year of driving with mom or dad is really critical for getting the experience you need to be a safe driver.”
Goodwin thinks the fee might be encouraging teens to wait until they turn 18, when they can skip driver's education completely.
“At that point, you can just go out and get your adult license, and you don't have to go through the permit phase,” Goodwin said.
Flythe hopes that isn’t the case.
“Just because they’re 18 doesn’t mean they’re going to be any more safe,” Flythe said.
Mecklenburg County's driver's education director Connie Sessoms said about a third of the state’s school systems decided to charge the fee. He says many of those that didn’t impose a fee are limiting enrollment because they’re running out of money for the program.
Sessoms said lawmakers should repeal the fee and find a steady funding source, like a $5 surcharge on all North Carolina license plates.
“They’re out there on the road with all of us. So, it behooves all of us to train these people, and it behooves every person in the state to support that,” Sessoms said.
On Tuesday, the North Carolina Child Fatality Task Force's Teen Road Safety Research panel, which Sessoms sits on, voted to recommended lifting the fees.
Parsons said she knows it could be tough to talk lawmakers into any new fees in an election year, but driver’s education is a smart investment.
“If they're going to be out there driving anyway – and they are – then at least let us give them what training we can,” she said.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction does not track the number of students who enroll in driver’s education statewide, even though state law mandates that all state high schools offer a state-approved drivers’ education curriculum.