An education fight that’s a lot more important than you might think

By: - September 9, 2015 5:30 am


Attack on driver’s ed goes right to the heart of the ideological battle over the future of public schools

At first blush, it might seem that the ongoing debate in the North Carolina General Assembly over the future of driver’s education is a bit of sideshow – a skirmish over an “extracurricular activity” during a period of tight budgets. With big questions like teacher pay, funding for teacher assistants and textbooks and the proposed rapid expansion of charter schools and private school vouchers on the table, it would be easy for even caring and thinking people to dismiss the driver’s ed debate as an important, but at most, secondary battle.

Such a quick dismissal would, however, be a mistake. To the contrary, the fight over the future of driver’s education is actually a very important and symbolic debate – the outcome of which could well establish an important precedent going forward.

Where things stand

As with so many matters at issue in the General Assembly this year, the debate over driver’s ed is one that pits the conservative House of Representatives against the hyper-conservative Senate. Whereas the House wants to continue the state’s investment in what has long been a traditional function of government (albeit at current inadequate levels), the Senate is ready to ditch the whole thing. This conflict and the overall stalemate that has delayed a final budget agreement for more than two months into the new fiscal year have resulted in a de facto victory for the Senate thus far.

As Raleigh News & Observer transportation reporter Bruce Siceloff reported last week:

State funding for driver’s ed classes expired at the end of June. The Department of Public Instruction laid off its driver’s ed consultant in July. Many school boards across the state suspended the classes in August – because our legislature couldn’t decide whether driver’s ed is worth the bother for taxpayers, or for teen drivers themselves.

There are vague hopes that the legislature will adopt a budget by the end of September and determine the fate of driver’s ed.

The Senate wants to end state funding and let 15-year-olds start driving without taking driver’s ed first. The House wants to continue subsidizing the classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction that 120,000 teens received at North Carolina high schools last year.

If an eventual budget compromise restores funding at last year’s levels, the state will again cover enough of the cost so that students can take the class for a $65 fee. That will be enough to keep driver’s ed alive, but not to make it better.”

In other words, after years and years of providing driver’s education as a basic component of a public high school education, the North Carolina Senate has made the rather remarkable leap of saying “the heck with it.” What’s more, as each day goes by, this state of affairs is fast becoming the status quo.

Driver’s ed is junk”

That driver’s education ought to be an essential part of the public high school curriculum would seem a rather obvious fact. After all, North Carolina is not New York City where much of the population can get by using public transportation. Even for the poor, driving and car ownership are nearly universal in many places. Roughly 60% of the state’s population (more than six-million people) are licensed drivers and the state is home to even more vehicles than it has drivers. Add to this the fact that the state had nearly 1,188 fatal crashes in 2013 that claimed 1,289 lives and it becomes painfully obvious that automobile safety is an enormous health, safety and financial issue.

Strangely, however, some ultra-conservative members of the North Carolina Senate do not see things this way. As Siceloff reported yesterday, Senate Education Committee Co-Chair Dan Soucek recently summoned him to a meeting in which he informed the reporter that the state would do well to leave driver’s education up to parents because the program has had troubles in the past in equipping students. Here’s how Siceloff described the meeting:

The short title of this course was: Driver’s ed is junk, and we blame the Department of Public Instruction.

My head teacher cited his responsibility for state dollars, as Senate education budget co-chairman, and his experience driving cars, motorcycles, heavy equipment and Army attack helicopters.

I’ve seen what it means to drive, fly, instruct,’ said Sen. Dan Soucek, a Boone Republican. ‘And in all those areas, the only thing that makes you better is time behind the wheel. That is the critical element. There is nothing you can learn in a classroom that comes anywhere close to that….’

Joined by two senior legislative staffers and Republican Sens. Stan Bingham of Denton and Fletcher Hartsell of Concord, [Soucek] declared that DPI ‘has completely failed’ in providing driver’s ed.

In support of his position, Soucek cited a legislative staff report that found numerous problems with the state’s driver’s ed program in the past — including a lack of standards and high student failure rates on written tests. As Siceloff goes on to explain, however, there has been steady improvement in the program’s performance in recent years – especially since a new program coordinator took over in 2012. Unfortunately, that coordinator has been laid off as a result of the budget stalemate.

What’s really going on here?

So why the big push to end driver’s ed? Why would a state lawmaker be so bent out of shape about a program that’s actually shown a significant performance improvement in recent years? And why would he take the politically risky step of pushing for its elimination and placing a new and unwelcome burden onto tens of thousands of parents?

After all, despite his statements to Siceloff, Soucek surely didn’t learn to fly military aircraft by simply hopping in the pilot seat one day, absorbing a few pointers and commencing to practice.

The answer, pretty clearly, is a matter of ideology trumping facts on the ground. Put simply, Soucek is one of the General Assembly’s new breed of ultra-conservative privatizers. An employee of the Samaritan’s Purse organization run by controversial evangelist Franklin Graham, Soucek is a champion of both the religious right’s social agenda and the market fundamentalist economic agenda. On issue after issue, Soucek is happy to play the role of far right trailblazer, fighting to downsize, eliminate or privatize public systems and structures.

And so it is in the case at hand. While the facts on the ground – a chronically underfunded public program that has nonetheless made some real improvements in recent years – cry out for more resources and a renewed and enhanced public commitment, all Soucek and his allies can see is another chance to advance their vision of transforming our education system into an ever more privatized and sectarian model. And if they succeed in this case, who knows what might be next on the list?

The bottom line: Let’s hope this issue gets resolved with Soucek and his Senate colleagues acceding to common sense and the House’s position and that, in time, the program is strengthened and expanded significantly. Driver’s education is the kind of core societal survival skill that all North Carolina public school students ought to receive completely free of charge.

Unfortunately, for a small, radical and persistent segment of North Carolina’s current political leadership, the very idea of public education – what they and their allies frequently refer to as “government schools” – is an anathema.

In other words, whatever happens over the next few days to driver’s ed, the battle over these fundamental issues has a long way to go.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.