Secretary of State calls for more Michigan schools to bring back driver’s education

By Kyle Kaminski

January 30, 2024

Most school-based driver’s training programs were shuttered after they stopped receiving state funding in 2004. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson wants to bring them back to life. 

MICHIGAN—Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson wants to make driver’s education more accessible in Michigan, namely by connecting more public schools with the resources needed to again operate their own in-house driver’s training programs for local high school students.

“Most private providers deliver quality instruction, but with the first segment of driver’s ed costing as much as $650, many families simply can’t afford it,” Benson said during a press conference this week at Kearsley High School—one of 38 schools in Michigan that still provide driver’s education to students since state funding for the training programs was eliminated in 2004.

“Twenty years ago, the state of Michigan shifted the cost burden for driver’s education directly onto teens and their families,” Benson said. “As a result, fewer teens are getting trained and licensed—especially those who are Black, Hispanic, or from low-income families.”

The Driver Education Fund was wiped from the state budget in 2004, a move which reportedly forced many school districts to hike their fees or cut their in-house training programs altogether. 

An analysis of State Department records shows that the number of eligible Michigan teens with driver’s licenses plummeted as state funding dried up—from 66% in 2000 to 56% in 2021. And as of this week, fewer than four dozen school districts in Michigan teach driver’s education at all. 

Benson wants to reverse the trend through the creation of two, new state grant programs. 

One would offer students a need-based grant to help cover the cost of driver’s training, as well as road testing, she said. The other would provide grants for schools that would help offset the cost of providing driver’s education—like buying a vehicle and hiring an instructor.

The plan already has support from the state’s largest teachers union. Michigan Education Association President Chandra Madafferi joined Benson this week for the announcement. 

“Schools are an ideal place to provide driver’s education; we know our students, we provide exceptional instruction, and are accountable to state standards,” Madafferi said. “Educators and administrators I’ve spoken to want to see driver’s education return to the schools.”

State officials said the move to privatize instruction in 2004 has also contributed to race- and income-based inequity. Studies show 29% of Hispanic teens and 37% of non-Hispanic Black teens get their driver’s licenses by age 18, compared to 67% for non-Hispanic white teens

Research has also found that only about one in four teens in households with total incomes under $20,000 a year acquire their driver’s licenses before their 18th birthday. But where household income exceeded $100,000, 79% of teens got licensed by the time they turned 18. 

Andy Nester, a driver’s education instructor at Kearsley High School, described the in-house training program at his district as “an important public service that helps our students learn.”

“Our students are taught by experienced, qualified teachers they know and trust in their familiar school environment,” he said in a statement. “My experience tells me that investing in public school driver’s education programs is an investment in safety and responsible behavior.” 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to release her executive budget recommendations for the upcoming fiscal year in early February, which could include specific appropriations designed to fund driver’s training initiatives. Budget negotiations among state lawmakers will follow.

Madafferi told Michigan Public that the cost of bringing back driver’s education to all public schools is unclear, but she hopes to make it possible through “a combination of funding from the state government, some foundations and charities, and then dealerships that might donate.”

READ MORE: Benson talks election protections and defending democracy in 2024

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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