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Florida's financially strapped school districts trim driver's education

Driver's education has been a part of the high school experience for decades. Generations of pimply teenagers have practiced three-point turns behind the gym, gripping steering wheels with sweaty palms at 2 and 10 o'clock.

But financially strapped school districts all over Florida are trimming driver's education classes and squeezing them out of the school day, leaving supporters to expect more fender benders involving teen drivers.

In the past two years, enrollment in district-offered driver's education has fallen from 63,828 to 44,874 — a 30 percent drop. And expert observers say it's not likely that private driving schools, which can charge $200 to $500 for a comparable course, are filling the gap.

"If (students) don't receive any kind of training at all, we're going to pay for it in lives and collisions," said John Bolen, immediate past president of the Florida Professional Driving School Association.

Blame it on budget cuts and school accountability.

Since the fall of 2007, Florida school districts have repeatedly pared budgets in response to historic shortfalls in state education spending, and they may have to do it again next year. Meanwhile, the state's accountability system has forced them to focus more on reading, math and other basic subjects.

Throw in the fact that driver's education is not required for a Florida license, and it's clear why the program is shrinking.

"It's the easy apple to pick," said Amber Smith, an aide to state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa. In 2008, Ambler pushed unsuccessfully to require that all teenagers pass a driver's education course before getting a license. High school students in Hillsborough came up with the idea, later dubbed "Tyler's Bill" after Tyler Isenhour, a 16-year-old Lakewood Ranch boy who died in a car accident in 2006.

Districts say they're trying to keep as much driver's education as they can.

Miami-Dade slashed daytime driver's education classes at every high school last year and replaced them with far fewer night courses. In the process, it cut nearly 30 of 35 full-time driver's education teachers.

In Volusia, enrollment fell from 3,100 to 700 when the district ended its traditional driver's education program and switched to classes after school, on Saturdays and in the summer. The savings: about $750,000 a year.

"It was either that or nothing," said Bill Poniatowski, the Volusia administrator in charge of the program.

Around Tampa Bay, Hillsborough and Pasco have not cut their programs, but Florida Department of Education data shows slight enrollment dips for both. The state figures do not include summer enrollment.

"If we did attempt to cut, our phones would be ringing off the hook with parents," said Dennis Holt, who oversees driver's education in Hillsborough.

In Hernando, driver's education was on the chopping block this spring until the School Board granted it a last-minute reprieve.

Pinellas school officials cut the number of leased cars this year from 71 to 32, leaving two for every high school where some had as many as eight. It saved $93,000. According to state data, the number of Pinellas students taking driver's education in school has dropped from 4,965 in 2005 to 2,795 last year. But some of that dropoff was probably offset by an expansion of driver's education "camps" that the district offers in the summer, said Nick Grasso, the administrator who oversees the program.

More than 900 students enrolled in the camps this past summer, he said. But since the district doesn't award academic credit for the camps — unlike traditional driver's education programs — that enrollment did not show up in the state tally.

At Northeast High in St. Petersburg, instructor Dave Redding, 61, tells students that driver's education is the most important class they'll ever take.

One day last week, he sat in the passenger seat of a black 2008 Fusion while student Jack Shelby, 17, took the wheel. Jack braked too hard into one turn, accelerated too much into another. When Redding told him to take a left at the next light 200 yards away, Jack turned on the blinker immediately. "Any chance we could confuse somebody with our signal there?" Redding said gently.

"Yes, we could," Jack said.

Many insurance companies offer modest discounts for students who complete a driver's education course. But whether they become safer drivers remains the subject of debate.

Some research shows that driver's education does reduce crashes among 16- and 17-year-olds, said Allen Robinson, chief executive of the American Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association. One study found an 11 to 21 percent lower rate of crashes among young drivers who successfully completed a program.

"It has a real high impact in the first year (of driving) on the number of crashes," Robinson said. But "we can't show it has an impact on fatalities."

In Florida, drivers ages 15 to 19 have the second-highest crash rate, behind 20- to 24-year-olds, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. In 2008, they were involved in more than 32,000 crashes.

If driver's education programs continue to be cut, more responsibility will fall on parents.

The reality is that driver's education "has to start at home," said Yoli Buss, who directs driver improvement programs at AAA Auto Club South, based in Tampa. But "some parents don't want the responsibility."

Another one of Redding's students, 16-year-old Jake Briner, said he'd rather learn from Redding than his mom. Mom drives "pretty aggressively," he said. "Pretty fast, swerves in and out."

With Redding at his side, Jake got ready to back out of a post office parking space. He looked over his left shoulder, then his right, then his left again before easing the car into reverse.

"I don't want to give Jake a big head," Redding said. "But for a student driver, he's pretty good."

Times researchers Connie Humburg and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Driver's education class enrollment*
District 2004-2005 2008-2009
Pinellas 4,965 2,795
Hillsborough 9,125 8,201
Pasco 2,320 2,149
Hernando 872 806
State 70,563 44,874
* Does not include summer enrollment

Source: Florida Department of Education

Florida's financially strapped school districts trim driver's education 10/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 11:00am]

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