Local Politics

State deficit could put brakes on driver's ed classes

Posted April 7, 2010 5:29 p.m. EDT
Updated April 7, 2010 6:59 p.m. EDT

— Funding for driver's education classes for North Carolina teens isn't included in the state budget for next year, and lawmakers are haggling over who should pay for the classes – if the state can even find money to pay for them.

The classes, which are offered free at public high schools statewide and have become a right of passage for students who are at least 14½, cost North Carolina about $33 million annually. Traditionally, the state Department of Transportation has paid for them out of the State Highway Fund.

With the state facing a projected $1.2 billion deficit in the 2010-11 fiscal year, which starts in July, state agencies are preparing to cut their budgets. DOT supporters in the General Assembly say they think the agency shouldn't sacrifice spending on roads to pay for driver's education.

Rep. Nelson Cole, D-Rockingham, chairman of a House appropriations committee on transportation, noted that an independent group recently projected that the DOT is about $65 billion short of what it needs to handle road and bridge construction and maintenance over the next 20 years.

"We're not going to get there as long as we continue to supplant other departments' operations," Cole said, adding that he believes driver's education funding should come from the education budget.

"We've got about 50 percent of the money we need to do what we've got to do, and with the population increasing, we've got to look for every nickel, dime, penny that's out there," he said.

State education officials said they also face budget cuts and cannot afford to take on new financial responsibilities.

"It would be extremely difficult," Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said. "We are scraping the bottom of the barrel in order fund our public schools."

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison, chairman of a House appropriations committee on education, said the funding arrangement for driver's education classes has worked for years and shouldn't be changed.

"The recommendation will be to continue as we have in the past. I think that's a wise thing to do," Rapp said.

Lawmakers said they believe the classes will likely get a green light during budget negotiations, although it's unclear what will be sacrificed to help teens get behind the wheel.

"They need as much training as we can provide for them before we turn them loose on the roads," Rapp said.

Nearly every state requires teens to complete a driver's education course to get a provisional license. Studies cited by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration suggest that such classes might not be a good idea, however.

Three different teams of researchers have found the classes have little or no effect in reducing crashes. They suggest the courses allow teens to get their licenses at a younger age, when they are more impulsive and less experienced.