by Julie Tisdale
City & County Policy Analyst
I’m agreeing with a school board. This is unusual.
This week, the News & Observer has a piece about the cost to Johnston County Schools of offering free or discounted driver’s ed. It’s the result of a new mandate from the general assembly.
Previously, school systems couldn’t charge a student more than $65 to take driver’s ed, but lawmakers recently tweaked the law to require districts to offer some kind of discount or to make the program free.
Johnston schools came up with $32 as the reduced price and planned to apply the same income threshold it uses for free and reduced-priced school lunches. The problem is, none of these numbers have anything to do with the actual cost of the the program. Oliver Johnson, the assistant superintendent for student services, said driver’s ed costs the school system $350 per student, with the state reimbursing $190 of that and students paying $65. That leaves Johnston schools to cover the test of the tab. or $95.
School boards don’t have money trees. And while I know that coming up with $65 is tough for some families, it doesn’t strike me as at all unreasonable to ask families to contribute a portion (less than 20% if the numbers above are correct) of the cost of providing driver’s ed to their children.
There are kids in my neighborhood who are seeking yard work and babysitting jobs to earn money for phones that their parents have told them they’ll have to pay for themselves. It’s not impossible to make $65 as a teenager if you’re willing to do a few hours of work. And if there really are situations of dire need, then maybe there’s another approach.
Keith Branch, who’s on the school board, estimates that the cost would likely “be a few hundred thousand dollars for each class that passes through.” So he says “I understand the logic behind it, but that’s a lot of money.”
He’s right. The NC Constitution guarantees “a right to the privilege of education,” but it says precisely nothing about driver’s ed. I checked. Rather than adding additional financial burden on school boards, maybe we should let them focus on academics and let parents take some responsibility for driver’s ed.