Forty-five dollars doesn't sound like enough money to keep a high school student from participating in an after-school activity. But that exact fee may be keeping hundreds of Wake County students from participating in driver education.
Until last year, students could enroll in driver education in North Carolina schools free of charge. But in last year's budget, lawmakers at the General Assembly trimmed $5 million out of the state's $32 million fund for driver education in high schools.
To make up the shortfall, legislators gave school districts the option of levying a fee of up to $45 for driver ed.
"Legislators say $45 is not a budget buster," said Connie Sessoms, Driver Ed program specialist for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, "but when you add that on to a hundred dollars for an athletic fee, money for a band instrument, school supplies, clothes. It's the straw that broke the camel's back for many families."
About half the state's local school systems are charging the $45 fee including Wake County, said Reginald Flythe, the coordinating teacher for Wake County driver education.
Flythe told a meeting of the Teen Road Safety workgroup of a legislative task force on child safety Wednesday that it’s been problematic from the start.
"The bill was ratified, vetoed, overridden and became state law before we could even get it on the school board's agenda [last summer]," Flythe said. "So we were registering kids for summer driver ed all spring without the fee, and we couldn't charge them that fee after the fact, so we lost about $92,000.”
According to Flythe’s data, enrollment in driver education in the first two months of 2012 is down by about 20 percent over the same time period last year. Overall, Flythe says Wake County has had 352 fewer driver ed students than last year.
"The only difference between last year and this is the fee," he said.
But Flythe is less worried about the fee than about the safety repercussions.
He said some students may wait until they are 18 to get a license — the age they are no longer required to get driver instruction. That could make them more unsafe as drivers, he said.
Such is the case in Texas, where driver ed was discontinued in the ‘90s and replaced with “Parent-Taught Driver Education.”
An analysis of accident data shows that after the change, more new drivers committed more traffic offenses, ended up in more accidents and those accidents were more serious.
Research shows that keeping younger adolescents off the road reduces accidents, but what matters most in preventing accidents is driving experience, according to Arthur Goodwin, from the Highway Safety Research Center at UNC Chapel Hill.
Teens taking driver education get up to 30 hours of classroom instruction and then get behind-the-wheel training in vehicles outfitted with passenger side brakes and extra mirrors for instructors.
“The main thing we're trying to do is save lives and teach people to make good choices on the road,” Flythe said. “I feel like the few dollars they'll save is not going to be worth the back end of it.”
The fee seems to be affecting teens of all backgrounds, including those in more affluent areas.
“For example, at Wakefield, we had a month where we didn't have enough students for a class ... and it wasn't for lack of trying,” Flythe said. “We thought that people would be able to afford the fee. So the unknown is why kids are holding back.”
Flythe said the drop in enrollment may also mean the district could have to give some driver education money back to the state. Districts receive about $198 per student for driver ed, and if the predicted number of students don't show up, school officials return the excess to the state.
The state also allocates the following year's money based on the prior year's enrollment. Flythe said he worries that Wake gets a smaller allocation next year based on this year's enrollment. Then if economy improves over the next year, and students return to driver ed, Wake County will be even more short of cash for the 2012-13 school year.
“We can get by for a year on this current allotment,” Flythe said. “We spent money this year preparing for the contingency of next year being unknown in terms of funding.”