Teacher drives home her point about the need for driver education in schools Board considers dropping course

February 15, 1993|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff Writer

When school was called off for snow Friday, teacher Edna McNemar got to work.

She spent the morning telephoning her bosses. She saw the unexpected time off as an opportunity to start her campaign entreating school officials not to drop driver education.

Like other driver education teachers, Mrs. McNemar is certified in another subject and won't lose her paycheck if the school board decides next month to stop teaching students how to drive.

A seemingly tireless advocate, she says driver education is a skill that the schools should teach. Private driving lessons can cost four times the school fee of $65.

"What good is vocational education without a drivers license?" Mrs. McNemar said. Teens who graduate ready for jobs must be able to drive to them, she said.

On March 10, when the issue comes before the school board, Mrs. McNemar hopes to be there, as she was Wednesday when the administration proposed that the board consider dropping the course.

If the school board agrees to drop driver education, the change would take effect in the 1994-1995 school year, since students already have signed up for the popular course next year.

More than 90 percent of students take driver education, usually in their sophomore year, Mrs. McNemar said.

Principals and other administrators are saying that driver education isn't worth the space, expense and scheduling trouble it is causing.

Driving simulators at the schools are about 10 years old and need to be replaced, at an estimated cost of $450,000 over the next five years, said Peter B. McDowell, director of secondary education for Carroll County.

Most of the driver education teachers are at or near retirement age, Mrs. McNemar said.

"From a business point of view, it looks like a perfect opportunity," she said. "On the other hand, I don't think we can dismiss this life skill, this work skill."

Mrs. McNemar is asking the administrators and school board to consider beefing up the driver education course with a life-skills or health and safety component, and making it a half-credit, semester-long course. That would also give half the class something to do while the other half is working on the simulators, she said.

Neighboring school systems that have eliminated driver education include Frederick, Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard, Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

Mr. McDowell recommends that the board allow private companies to use school classroom space -- but not simulators -- offer driver education to teens in the evenings and the summer.

Easy Method/Sears Driving School offers the only private lessons in Carroll County. If the average 1,500 students a year to take driver education suddenly no longer can get the course at school, however, other companies might come into the county to compete.

The fee at Easy Method is $248 for teens, which includes 30 hours of classroom time and six hours on the road. Easy Method does not use simulators.

Carroll high schools have used simulators as a way to reduce the road time, which is the most costly component of driver education. The state requires six hours on the road, or 12 hours on a simulator and three hours on the road, plus 30 hours of classroom time.

"My personal opinion is that three more hours in a realistic, on-the-road experience would be more beneficial than [12] hours in the simulator," Mr. McDowell said.

The $65 fee paid by students this year covers the on-road portion only, with the school system absorbing the classroom cost. Until this year, students paid no fee because the state offered a $45-per-student reimbursement to schools.

The road portion of driver education is scheduled after school, and teachers are paid an hourly rate of $17.18 for the extra time.

The most troubling aspects for principals are classroom scheduling and space, Mr. McDowell said. While half the class is at the 12 simulators in each school, the other half has to be in a study hall, and all the schools are trying to phase out study halls, he said.

"Study halls are not a productive use of time," Mr. McDowell said.

Also, high school enrollment is expected to swell as the larger middle school population starts moving up through the grades, he said.

With space at a premium, Mr. McDowell said, the schools can't afford to use two classrooms for one driver education course.

The savings from eliminating driver education would be $356,056 a year, not counting the $90,000 a year for the next five years if the schools were not to replace the simulators.

If the schools drop driver education, students will be faced with choosing between higher fees for private lessons or waiting until they are 18 to get a drivers license.

Mr. McDowell doesn't think the latter choice is so bad. California state government withdrew reimbursements to schools for driver education a few years ago, which drove up the cost to students.

But it also led to a decrease in the teen auto death rate, Mr. McDowell said, presumably because they were having to wait until they were older to get a license.

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