The driver education crisis appears to be averted by the deal reached by the House and Senate to provide $24 million in funding for programs in 2015-16. But that is just the beginning. The conference budget bill raises issues related to funding in the second year of the biennial budget, governance, effective and efficient delivery of the driver education program, the means of evaluation, and the reports required of school districts. And because all of this was decided behind closed doors, let’s bring the conversation into the open.
First, what was the funding crisis?
The immediate crisis was that the 2015-16 fiscal year began without state funding available for driver education programs that ran during the summer. Further, school districts could not plan for the upcoming school year without knowing whether or how much funds would be available for driver education. As a result, many school districts stopped operating their programs.
As further background, the State has paid for driver education since 1957.1 Beginning in 2011-12, the General Assembly allowed local boards of education to charge student fees to offset the reduction in state funding.2 The amount of the allowed fee increased over time as state funds were reduced.3 While this can cause concern over equal access to the program, the even more drastic measure occurred in 2014 when the General Assembly signaled complete elimination of state funding. In the revisions to the biennial budget, the funding allocation for driver education for 2014-15 was changed from recurring to non-recurring and the General Assembly expressed the intent that beginning in 2015-16, local boards would be responsible for funding this $26 million program.4
The first step in the budgeting process did not alleviate these concerns. Governor McCrory’s proposed budget completely eliminated the role of the State Board of Education in overseeing the driver education program; it permitted but did not require local boards of education and community colleges to provide driver education; and it did not provide any state funding.
The budget passed by the House on May 22 restored state support with an appropriation of $26 million in non-recurring funds for 2015-16. It identified that state support for 2016-17 would be through civil fines and forfeitures. More on this below.5
The budget passed by the Senate on June 18 provided no state funding and shifted responsibility for the program from the State Board of Education to the community college system. 6
With no budget in place, school districts did not have state funding for driver education programs beginning July 1. While the General Assembly passed budget continuances through August 14, then August 31, and then again through September 18, these resolutions did not address driver education, leaving school districts and students in the lurch.7 With about 120,000 students participating in driver education each year, it is not surprising that the media reported on the public frustration with the General Assembly’s failure to act.
The conference budget bill resolves the funding for this year. But what about next year?
Is the funding resolved for the biennial budget?
Most likely not. Here is why: the conference budget bill follows the House version of stipulating that “State support in FY 2016-17 for this activity is provided by Civil Fines and Forfeitures.” This is unlikely to meet constitutional standards that provide explicit limitations on the use of these funds. The North Carolina Constitution mandates that the clear proceeds of fines and forfeitures collected by State agencies “shall be faithfully appropriated by the General Assembly, on a per pupil basis, to the counties, to be used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.”8 The conference budget bill seems to try to get around this by amending one of the State laws to provide that “[t]he driver education program shall be for the purpose of making available public education to all students on driver safety and training.”9
This does not match up with maintaining free public schools. The driver education program is not just for public education students – it is for all those eligible. Further, it is not a part of the instructional day. It seems apparent that the conference budget bill does not consider driver education essential as a part of the free public schools as it also provides for a study of alternative providers such as community colleges or private entities.10
While only courts can determine the constitutionality of a statute, these issues at least raise significant questions about whether the General Assembly can direct the use of civil fines and forfeitures for driver education. This means that with the short session beginning next year in May, school districts might once again find themselves in a funding crisis.
Where does driver education fit in public education and why does this matter?
Driver education is unique. It is not a part of the required standard course of study (SCOS) offered in the public schools.11 While the SCOS includes essential content areas in history, science, mathematics, and English, it also includes an array of courses required for all students more related to healthful living and citizenship, including instruction on alcohol and drugs, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, bicycle safety, reproductive health and safety, character education, and disability history and awareness.12 State law prohibits local boards from providing credit toward graduation for the driver education program.13 State Board of Education policy prohibits local boards from providing driver education instruction during the school day.14
It was not always this way. Driver education had been offered during the school day, but in part because of the expense and logistics, it was pulled out. Beginning in 1991, local boards were permitted to enter into contracts with public or private entities to provide the driver education program.15
The change in delivery raises a fundamental issue of how the driver education program is structured: rather than being a core part of education, it is velcroed on to the school day. In the blistering evaluation reports by the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, assertions are repeatedly made that the program hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it deserves.16 And in one of the responses from the State Board, it acknowledges what had been a hands-off role since this change:
DPI, although required by G.S. 20.88.1 to organize and administer the Driver Education Program has adopted a limited role as “Fiscal Agent” in the program administration and implementation. The bulk of the program design, content, and oversight has been delegated to Local Education Agency (LEAs) instead of maintained centrally at the state level.17
While recognizing this history, the Strategic Plan recommends extending the hours of instruction, allowing local boards to provide instruction during the day, and asserts the State Board’s role as the appropriate entity over driver education.18
On the other hand, even with the scrutiny from the General Assembly, there are signs that it is difficult for the Department of Public Instruction to manage this while attending to other strategic priorities with ever diminishing resources. The website reflects sporadic periods of activity and/or reports from the Driver Education Advisory Committee. The driver education consultant position is vacant due to budget constraints. Performance measures for driver education are not included yet in the State Board’s strategic plan. Not surprisingly, the recent effort of the State Board to respond to the order from Judge Howard E Manning on a plan for providing a constitutionally sound education for all students does not address driver education.
In some respects, this simply may reflect what happens when programs are decentralized. The PED report criticizes the Department of Public Instruction for not evaluating instructors in the schools or overseeing the curricular materials or collecting detailed information on the outcomes of these programs. But without clear standards in place to the contrary, would not the current framework of providing driver education outside of the instructional day and through multiple means of delivery likely lead to this result?
This matters because the conference budget bill does not just address funding for the biennial budget. It sets up a process for a comprehensive evaluation of the driver education program. This question of curriculum raises a couple of important questions moving forward:
Is driver education an integral part of public education?
If so, how does that affect governance, funding, and delivery?
If it is not, are public schools still the best delivery site in functioning as a hub of the community or are there other approaches that would be efficient and effective?
It also matters because driver education and teacher assistants were the two priorities in public education that the House pressed for in the budget negotiations. The Senate started with offering zero funds for driver education while the House wanted $26 million. If driver education is more along the lines of something we simply agree all youngsters should be exposed to and it doesn’t have to be part of public education then why would it consume so much of the negotiation? In other words, if driver education was considered a separate funding obligation, what did the House have on the table that could have been a part of the budget negotiation? Here are some of the programs that total less than the driver education program.
Regional Education Service Alliances (RESAs) – (House: $2.4 M)
Regional Leadership Academies – (House: $3.9M)
Digital Learning Plan – (House: $9M)
NC Elevating Educators Act of 2015 – (House: $200K)
Visiting International Faculty – (House: $1.2M)
Distinguished Leadership Practices – (House: $300K)
Microsoft Statewide Agreement – (House: $2.6M)
New Schools Pilot – (House: $2M)
The existing framework for driver education also sets up the next issue:
How is the curriculum developed and how does it connect to the driving test?
The State Board is required to develop a standardized curriculum. State law establishes some of the requirements, such as the minimum hours of instruction, and specific topics such as driving while impaired and motorcycle safety.19 Certainly one of the goals would be to prepare students for taking the required written test for a learner’s permit and the behind-the-wheel test for the driver’s license. The written test is prepared by the Division of Motor Vehicles. The 2013 Appropriations Act required the Division of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Public Instruction to collaborate in revising the driver knowledge test. This means that one state agency is responsible for the curriculum and another for the test.20 And it is at least possible that the interests of DMV in a test used for all potential drivers is different in emphasis from the issues important for educating young drivers, including the required emphasis on alcohol awareness and motorcycle safety. All of this means that it is at least challenging to create a test aligned with the curriculum.
There are additional issues here. The written test is not necessarily taken just after the completion of the driver education course: it is taken once the student is eligible to apply for the learner’s permit and chooses to do so. The longer the lapse in time, the harder it is to relate success or failure to the course. Further, the behind the wheel test, which surely is at least as important, will come at least a full year later.
While these issues are present, the Program Evaluation Division report uses the test results as a measure of the effectiveness of the program. In a consistently negative tone, the March 2014 Program Evaluation Division report focused on failure rates. It also dismissed the reduction in failure rates from 59 percent to 33 percent over a six-year period, suggesting that this may be due to a change in the population of students taking the test.21
All of this raises a more basic issue: don’t we really want to know whether driver education saves lives, whether there are fewer accidents, injuries, and fatalities – not just whether a student passed a written test in the months after taking a course? This data does not rest solely with the school district or even DMV but would be with insurance companies and police reports. And it is not just in one year but in multiple years. Indeed, part of the PED March 2014 recommendations include the following:
Number and percentage of students completing driver education and licensed committing moving traffic violations; involved as a driver in a traffic crash; involved as a driver in an injury crash or involved as a driver in a fatality crash, reported separately for ages 16, 17, and 18
Number and percentage of students age 18-25 completing driver education and licensed committing moving traffic violations; involved as a driver in a traffic crash; involved as a driver in an injury crash; or involved as a driver in a fatality crash compared to drivers age 18-25 who did not complete driver education22
Creating a system that could produce this information would be an enormous undertaking. Student privacy law restrictions, compatibility of state agency computer systems – not to mention data sources in law enforcement and private companies – would likely make this expensive and difficult.
But let’s add one more piece to this.
What does the conference budget bill require in regard to reports from the local boards to the State Board?
Volumes. More than is required for any other course of instruction provided by local boards of education.
Neither the House nor Senate versions of the budget provided reporting requirements included in the conference budget bill. These provisions did not become public until the conference report was released this week. Many of the reporting requirements closely align with the recommendations of the March 2014 PED report. The conference budget bill requires that by December 15 of this year, local boards of education must produce detailed records and information from the past two years as well as this year to the State Board. The State Board must then submit the compilation of information to the Joint Education Oversight Committee by February 15. There are 15 categories of required information. Here are just some of the reporting requirements with observations:
- Copies of all contracts related to driver education and a “detailed summary of information” on what the unit is providing and what the outside provider has contracted to provide
This is an example of asking for extensive information without sufficient clarity. What could DPI/SBE do with all of this information to compile in a useful way to present in two months?
- Total cost for the driver education program and per student cost for the program; detailed explanation of expenditures of all funds associated with the driver education program, written in plain English
This kind of cost assessment needs consistent definitions. For example, how should use of existing classroom space be allocated? It will be extremely difficult to go back in budgets to look at this information since there was not a requirement to do this. Instead, for such a request, school districts need to know in advance so that they can capture information in the manner needed. Without uniform definitions and means of showing this information, it will be almost impossible to compare. The reality is costing out these programs will be complex and simply may not be “plain English.”
- Average and maximum number of behind-the-wheel hours taught per day on regular school days and on any other day
This also may be difficult to go back and recreate. The amount of time needed for three years of data should be weighed against the value to produce it.
If school officials had been given the opportunity to respond to these draft provisions, it may be that something more reasonable could have been developed. It is perfectly justifiable that the General Assembly would want to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of different driver education models. It could be a rational policy decision that the public/private delivery model in place now has become too fragmented to ensure that all children have the opportunity for a quality driver education program. But the evaluation process needs to take into consideration the time and expense in preparing the information.
The need for evaluation also needs to be in balance with other interests. In this same section, the conference budget bill restricts the transfer of funds between allotment categories to specifically that “no funds shall be transferred into the driver education allotment category.”23 While no explanation is provided for this in the budget, the 2014 PED report expresses concern that budget flexibility provided in the 2013 budget would make it more difficult to track expenditures.24 This provision eliminates that flexibility. Thus, it at least appears possible that the conference budget bill is placing a greater priority on monitoring than it is on flexibility to find sufficient state funds to cover costs.
And now to put together the pieces.
There is funding only for one year. After that it raids the civil fines and forfeitures fund that already is required to be dedicated to the use of maintaining free public schools.
The framework for the evaluation established in the conference budget bill is based upon a PED report that asserts that the State Board and public schools have failed to show quality or cost effectiveness, based in part on test scores that are problematic as a basis of measuring outcomes.
School districts will be required to turn over voluminous information without sufficient guidance, which is likely to mean that the information will be incomplete and virtually impossible for the State Board to assemble into a cohesive analysis in two months time before submitting to the General Assembly’s Joint Education Oversight Committee.
The conference budget bill provides for recommendations to be made to the 2016 Regular Session on issues including recommendations on alternate providers, such as community colleges or private entities.
Is it possible that this process will not produce a reasonable, deliberative process with sound information? Is it possible that this process would tend to show failures of public schools to lead to conclusions to consider alternative providers?
Maybe the funding crisis has been averted for driver education for this year but there are many important decisions to be made on how driver education is provided. It defies logic to put teenagers behind the wheel without the right training. Surely we can agree on that. So let’s start having the conversation about how to do it.