August 27, 2001
Driving privilege comes with new expense
by Jeanette Knutson
Like it or not, Gov. Gary Locke signed a budget this past June that cut $8 million dollars in funds for traffic safety programs in high schools: driver's education.
There's a tad of irony in the fact that Locke, a mere decade ago, championed the cause to rescue an axed driver's ed program for vocal parents and teenagers who protested the cut. And that the Washington Driver's Guide booklet contains, on the first page, no less, a message from the governor that says, "Safety on Washington roads and highways is a paramount responsibility of state government ..."
Be that as it may, whereas in the past the state has paid one-third of the cost of driver's education, the school districts contributed another third and parents and students covered a third as well, this year will be different. Parents and students will pay for it all. In the Northshore School District (NSD), the fee will amount to $380.
"In light of the loss [in funding]," said Kathy Fowler, speaking for Northshore's traffic safety education program, "as a staff, as a department, as individuals, we will not cut corners [in our curriculum] to cut the cost. We feel it's way too important."
The program will continue as the 11-week course it has always been. Classes are held at times outside of the school day at convenient locations, Bothell High, Inglemoor High, Woodinville High and Northshore Junior High (evenings). The district's classroom portion of the program exceeds the state-required minimum of 30 hours by, as ever,15 hours. The behind-the-wheel portion of the course exceeds the state requirement of four hours, by an hour.
"In addition, the kids have 10 hours of observation where they get to see each other drive," says Fowler, referring to the fact that while one student drives during behind-the-wheel instruction, two others sit in the back seat and look on. "It's a great way to learn. They can really pick up a lot." (District policy does not allow a teacher to be alone in a car with a student.)
The NSD driving program, taught by certified teachers who hold a traffic safety education endorsement, also requires students to attend a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) victim's panel where they learn firsthand the consequences of drinking and driving. Guest speakers also address topics ranging from insurance costs to the consequences of driving in an unsafe manner. At the end of the course, students must pass a 100-question test based on the Washington Driver's Guide booklet. The state asks only 25 questions on its test.
Students practice-drive late model mid-size Ford Tauruses, inspected yearly by the state and maintained by the district garage. There are no simulators.
The district also offers a summer class for students with special needs, be they learning disabilities or physical disabilities.
The Legislature has provided for eligible low-income students who wish to take driver's ed. They can take the class for a reduced fee of $190, at the end of which they, or anyone else who takes the class, will receive a grade and three-quarters credit for completing the course.
How does all of this compare to taking a driving course at a commercial school?
"Costs are similar if you look at per-hour rates," said Fowler.
A check of four area driving schools indicates that their fees range from $329 to $399. Those fees provide no more than the minimum required 30-hour classroom work and four hours of behind-the-wheel instruction, though one business in Seattle did offer four and a half to six hours of driving time. The types of vehicles used at these businesses range from small compact cars to Toyota Corollas or Camrys to Daewoos or Chevy Luminas.
Northshore School District has decided to take no money from a school's General Fund to pay for traffic safety education. The program is totally self-sufficient; it does not siphon money from any other school program. Those $380 fees go to the complete operation of the program: classroom materials, the operation of the district's fleet, insurance, program management, attendance at the DUI victim's panel, speakers, etc.
Fowler admitted that enrollment for this coming trimester was down by close to 50 percent.
Matt Maloy, 18, of Bothell, said of the declined enrollment, "Most of my friends who were going to get their licenses this year are probably going to wait until they're 18 to take the test. They won't have to pay the $380. Besides, once they get their license, they can't do the stuff they want to do anyway," referring to the tough new requirements of the new intermediate driver's license aimed at those under the age of 18.
A Woodinville resident, also 18, who wished to remain anonymous, said, "In most cases parents will pay [the $380 course fee] because if they don't, they'll be driving their kids around; or, they won't have their kids to do errands for them."
Northshore plans to look at the program over the next two years, said Fowler. "Hopefully, by then we'll have state funding," she said.
Rep. Shay Schual-Berke, D-Normandy Park, is trying to put together a bill that would generate $15 million every two years for the state's driver education program. The proposal would raise the fee for a learner's permit from $5 to $30, and first-time driver's licenses would increase from $7 to $24. It is not likely the Schual-Berke bill will be acted on this year.