published Monday, June 25th, 2012

Running on empty: Georgia schools cutting driver's education classes

McCallie School student Drew Shikoh, 15, left, listens as Bob Bauer instructs him during his first in-car lesson during a Haman's Driving School class at Northgate Mall on Thursday.
McCallie School student Drew Shikoh, 15, left, listens as Bob Bauer instructs him during his first in-car lesson during a Haman's Driving School class at Northgate Mall on Thursday.
Photo by Dan Henry.

AT A GLANCE

North Georgia public schools that offer driver's education:

• Calhoun High School

• Gordon Lee High School

• Dalton High School

• Gordon Central High School

• Sonoraville High School

• Murray County High School

• North Murray County High School

Source: Georgia Department of Driving Services

Poll
Did you take driver's education in school?

When Zach Papp moved from Dalton, Ga., and started attending Northwest Whitfield High School, he no longer had the option to sign up for driver's education classes at school.

Instead, the teenager scoured the Internet along with his friends, looking for options to avoid paying more than $400 to meet the state's license requirements at a commercial school.

As state seed grants expire and tough budget cuts show no sign of easing, more school districts have been dropping their driver's education programs. That means the burden falls on parents and teens to find an alternative to meet the 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours behind the wheel needed along with 40 hours driving time in order to qualify for a driver's license at 16.

They can still receive a license without the instruction at age 17 with 40 hours experience on the road with a parent.

Dade County High School was one of the dwindling number of Georgia school districts that still offered behind-the-wheel experience and classroom time as an elective free for students. But that ended with the last school year.

Now parents from Trenton and throughout Dade will have to drive to Chattanooga or Fort Oglethorpe and pay for commercial instruction if their teens want a license before age 17.

"I don't think it's fair to the students," said Angela Workman, whose daughters are juniors at Dade County High.

As school budgets get leaner and state officials must determine how to take on their share of $1.14 billion in austerity cuts for fiscal year 2013, school officials say they have to make choices on what to trim.

They say they wish they could keep driver's education, but when schools face teacher layoffs and furlough days, sometimes such extracurricular activities must go.

"Driving is such a necessity. It's everybody's rite of passage," said Dade County Schools Superintendent Shawn Tobin. "Nobody wants to cut the program."

Most school districts in Tennessee already have cut driver's education. Hamilton County Schools eliminated its program nearly 14 years ago.

The state doesn't fund the program in Georgia, but in 2008 schools were given grants to start driver's education classes to help meet new requirements mandated by a law approved in 2005.

About 59 schools or school districts received a grant between 2008 to 2010, giving them money to purchase computer simulators that allow students to practice driving in the classroom.

Dalton Public Schools received $131,700 in 2009; Gordon Lee High School got $130,100 in 2008. Dade County High received two years of grants totaling $245,600.

While the state promised to use proceeds from traffic fines to fund the grants, a state audit in 2011 showed that only $8 million of the $57 million collected since 2005 went to school programs. And the audit showed only 147 driver education programs at the state's more than 400 public high schools, The Associated Press reported.

Tobin said it's frustrating that the money only was available for a short time, then schools had to find a way to sustain the program.

Dade High has paid about $110,000 from its general fund for the last three years to provide salaries and benefits for two driver's ed teachers, and that expense doesn't account for the fuel used in the cars, which were donated to the school, he said.

With this year's cuts, which include laying off 15 teachers and paraprofessionals, the school can't afford driver's ed any longer.

"Most schools don't have it," he said.

But parents say the school's decision will force some families to skip driver's ed because of the expense and some teens to wait until they turn 17 to get their licenses.

"It does ... a lot of good for people that can't afford" commercial classes, Workman said.

Some schools that continue to offer driver's education provide only classroom instruction with the already-paid-for computer simulators.

Gordon Lee High requires all incoming freshmen to take the class as an elective, said Principal Clay Crowder. Because teachers are using only the computers, freshmen who are 14 still can take the class.

"We don't get any extra money to maintain the equipment; we have to do it ourselves," he said. "But we're still going to offer it."

But some question whether the computers, which fulfill state requirements, are as beneficial as maneuvering a 2,000-pound vehicle down the road and through traffic.

"It's not as realistic," said Leatha Whitfield, who started her own driving school last year. "It gives them a little room for error on the simulator."

Whitfield, the mother of a teenage boy, faced the same problem many Dade County parents now have. Her son attended Northwest Whitfield High School, which didn't offer driver's education.

So she came up with her own solution, starting a driving school she named Dalton Whitfield's Driving Education. She averages five to 10 students a class from across Whitfield and even Catoosa County, where no public school driving classes are available.

Dalton Public Schools also has begun a program that extends driver's classes into the summer, allowing both Dalton and Whitfield County students the option to take the class for $325, which is still cheaper than most commercial schools.

Now Dalton High has the only school-run program in the county, said Pat Halloway, school spokeswoman.

Others, like Zach, use online classes that teach the 30-hour classroom time at a discounted rate. Zach paid $50 for the class.

In Chattanooga, city officials created an alternative for students living in the city limits, allowing them to take classes with Haman's Driving Academy for $50. Regular classes are $419.

It has proved very popular, and classes fill up quickly, said Caroline Johnson, Chattanooga's driver education coordinator.

While Dade High has closed its program, Tobin said they have kept the student cars and computer simulators just in case.

He is looking into whether volunteers might come forward to teach the class, possibly allowing it to be offered after school.

"We're trying to work with the community and get volunteers to get certified; we know it's that important," Tobin said.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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