Driver-Education Programs Hit Fiscal Potholes
Long a popular fixture in the high-school curriculum, driver education is hitting a bumpy stretch of road in a number of places.
At least three states and two major metropolitan school districts currently are considering dropping or shifting the cost of driver training in order to save money.
The result, experts say, will be to force students to pay fees of $200 or more for a course that used to be free, or to encourage them to drive without proper training or even without a license.
In addition to budget-driven cutbacks, some jurisdictions are moving driver education from the instructional day to after-school hours or the summer, on the grounds that it no longer merits a spot in the regular curriculum.
But safety experts warned last week that the changes could lead to more accidents on the highways, as more students get behind the wheel without the grounding in traffic laws and good driving habits that a school program can provide.
Motor-vehicle accidents are the primary cause of death for U.S. teenagers--accounting for more than 14,000 deaths nationwide in 1988 among 15- to 24-year-olds.
By far the majority of teenagers depend on public schools for their training, said Charles Butler, manager of driver-safety services at the American Automobile Association's Florida headquarters.
Indeed, 15 states mandate completion of a driver-education course before a person under age 18 can obtain a license, according to the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association.
"Many more 16- and 17-year-olds are going to be driving untrained and illegally," because of shrinking programs, said John Harvey, president of the driver-education group. "We're just going to see the death rate climb."
But the gains produced by driver-education programs--and the potential dangers created by cutting them back--are not unquestioned. The University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center has had "very little success in documenting a benefit of the driver-education program as it is now taught in the U.S.," an official of the center told a Congressional hearing last fall.
A Tempting Target
Officials in California, North Carolina, Washington State, Milwaukee, and Montgomery County, Md., have all either already cut or are considering reducing funding to driver education. In North Carolina and Montgomery County, officials have also removed driver education from the instructional day.
In California, where driving is a subculture unto itself, then-Gov. George Deukmejian last year tried to ease the state's enormous budget deficit by diverting to the general fund the entire $20-million budget for driver education, explained Susan Lange, a spokesman for the state education department.
The program, funded separately through fines collected on traffic tickets, could be reinstated as early as this month, said Ms. Lange, noting that it is currently in appropriations bills being considered by the legislature.
Nevertheless, driver education remains a tempting target for lawmakers faced with a $14-billion deficit, she added.
When state aid evaporated last year, some California districts continued the program with local money or student fees, hoping that the state would this year reinstate the money, Ms. Lange said.
But many students in other districts turned to commercial driving schools, which some experts in the field view as providing training that is inferior to that offered in the public schools.
Meanwhile, a legislative conference committee in Washington State last week was considering whether to slash state funding for driver education from a $16-million two-year budget to $5.3 million. The reduced amount would be used to offset the cost of driver education only for low-income students, said Gary Bloomfield, traffic-safety program manager in the office of the state superintendent of education.
Currently, the state reimburses districts $137--or about half the cost of the course--for each driver-education student. If most of the state funding is eliminated, districts could force students to bear the full cost or even decide to drop the program altogether.
The prospect of losing the state aid "has been an emotional issue," Mr. Bloomfield said.
Even if the money is cut, he noted, "The general education fund will never see a dime," since driver education is funded by a surcharge on traffic violations.
Mr. Bloomfield added that the loss of public-school driver programs will be particularly hard on students in rural areas, where commercial schools are much less common.
'Major Program Shift'
The North Carolina legislature is expected this month to adopt an appropriations bill that would reduce the state funding for driver education by nearly 20 percent, to about $23 million from last year's $28 million.
The reduction in funding is one of several changes to the program that are expected to become law July 1. Taken together, they represent a "major program shift" that dovetails with the state's ongoing education-reform movement, said James D. Johnson, a senior fiscal analyst in the legislature's fiscal-research division.
One such change would be to transfer the funding source for driver education from the state's general fund, which faces a $1.2-billion shortfall, to the dedicated highway fund. The highway fund is maintained through gasoline-tax revenue.
The appropriations bill also contains provisions that would allow local school systems to use non-certified teachers or contract with outside firms for driver-education courses. Both ideas could save districts money, Mr. Johnson said.
Many of the ideas about to be approved by legislators have been talked about for some time, he noted, but "the recession made it easier to do" this year.
In addition, the state board of education acted this spring to move driver education out of the instructional day, effective next year. Schools may teach the course before or after school, during the summer, or in an extended school day, the board said.
Lawmakers did not want to have "high-school kids' days chopped up with what they consider essentially an extracurricular activity," Mr. Johnson said.
Officials do not anticipate a drop-off in student attendance for driver education, however. "They may not be motivated in math class, but they'll be motivated to be in driver education," Mr. Johnson observed.
Local districts are also cutting or making changes in driver education.
The Milwaukee school board is set to decide before the end of the month whether to eliminate driver education from the school year altogether or to move it to after-school time, said Neal Rathjen, curriculum specialist for driver education and safety in the Milwaukee schools.
The district is contemplating deep budget cuts, in part because of state-aid reductions, Mr. Rathjen said.
As is the case in Washington State, however, the elimination of driver education from the school year apparently would not save the Milwaukee school budget any money. Driver education is a self-supporting program funded through a separate state-aid account, as well as a $100-per-student fee and equalization monies.
Mr. Rathjen said the debate has been more a "philosophical battle" focusing on whether driver education is something to which students should devote even one semester.
But Mr. Rathjen argued that teaching driver education can motivate students to stay in school. It also "helps break the welfare cycle" by teaching a marketable skill to inner-city youths, he said.
'There's No Choice'
By scaling back its driver-education program and moving it to the county's adult-education and summer-school division, the Montgomery County, Md., school system has been able to realize a savings of nearly $1.1 million toward its $70-million deficit, said Edward Masood, director of the division of health and physical education.
Students will have to pay about $200 this fall to take a driver-education program, which will be offered after school on a self-supporting basis.
The driving course will not be offered in as many schools as before--12 instead of 21--or contain as many hours of instruction, Mr. Masood said.
Students who enroll in the program will receive only the minimum required amount of classroom instruction and on-street practice. Students who took the course during the school year were getting about 42 hours in the classroom, rather than the minimum 30 hours.
Driver training joins many other programs being reduced or eliminated as a result of the district's fiscal problems, Mr. Masood said.
"You've got to reduce those that are not required," he said. "If I have to choose between English or driver education, there's no choice."
Vol. 10, Issue 38, Page 1