More Michigan teens could soon take driver’s ed in their own schools

Teen taking driving test in a white car

Photo: Getty Images

By Sophie Boudreau

April 18, 2024

Privatization of driver’s education means that only 38 Michigan high schools offer affordable in-school driving classes for students. New grants would help expand access.

Andy Nester has spent three decades as a teacher and coach at Kearsley High School in Flint. During the summer months, he sees students at Kearsley in a different capacity: as their driver’s education instructor.

“It provides a comfortable place to ask questions and learn from teachers they know and are familiar with,” Nester said of his school’s driving program. ‘We can explain the sequence and experience and what to expect in an environment they are accustomed to being in. These young people are the students and athletes we work with all year long.”

At Kearsley, approximately 90 students enroll in Segment 1—the “book stuff”—during the summer months each year. In November, they can round out their driver’s ed requirements with Segment 2—the more hands-on learning section of the course.

Nester says offering driver’s ed in a familiar public school setting makes a difference for students in many ways—like leaving space for more well-rounded teaching approaches that extend beyond the basics.

I think we teach the importance of driving in terms of understanding the respect, maturity, and character required to do this essential skill safely in our community,” he said. “We as teachers take this responsibility seriously.”

But for the vast majority of Michigan’s public high school students, driver’s education isn’t available like this. In fact, Kearsley is one of just 38 public schools statewide that still provides the option of in-school driver’s ed.

America’s auto hub is losing licensed drivers

If you’re over the age of 40 and you grew up in Michigan, chances are you took driver’s ed in your high school parking lot. If you’re even older, that’s almost surely the case—80% of 18-year-olds in the US had their driver’s licenses in 1983. These days, just 60% of 18-year-olds have them, and just 25% of 16-year-olds.

Driver’s education is a rite of passage,” Nester said. “In completing that challenge, students enter another phase of adulthood.”

From 1955-1998, the state of Michigan required public school districts to offer driver’s ed. Then, in 2004, the state ended its Driver Education Fund, transferring that money to the Michigan State Police.

Anyone whose mind first goes to the “win” for “small government” here probably isn’t worried about making ends meet every month. Private driver’s ed programs start around $650 for Segment 1 alone and require at least 30 hours of classroom instruction at a non-school location—typically between the hours of 3-8 p.m., four or five days per week, for six weeks. That usually means a parent has to have a car and a job that allows them to transport a child to and from class.

It doesn’t take a genius to guess who’s most impacted by this. In Michigan’s low-income communities—which disproportionately includes students in majority Black and Latino areas—private driver’s education is often financially and logistically unattainable.

Without driver’s licenses, students and young adults have limited access to school, work, and other opportunities. Moreover, unlicensed and untrained drivers on the road pose a threat to public safety.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson recently partnered with the Michigan Education Association (MEA) to address these access disparities and rebuild a system of public school driver’s education programming through grant funding in the coming months and years.

With such funding, in-school courses could be offered to students at little to no cost.

This year, we will work with educators and partners in state government to help more families afford driver’s education and connect public schools with resources to offer programs for high school students,” she said.

During Benson’s January press conference, Saginaw High School junior Julian Morris said that financial barriers have affected his quest to become a licensed driver. Saginaw High, which reports a 99.5% minority enrollment rate, does not offer in-school driver’s ed.

It’s an issue that not only affects me but affects teenagers all across the state,” Morris told reporters. “I recall sharing my experience with some of my peers only to hear, ‘At least you can afford to learn to drive.’”

Benson and the MEA have unveiled two voluntary grant programs to address inequities in driver’s education: one need-based grant that would cover costs for students pursuing training and another designed to expand public school driver’s ed programming in Michigan, by offsetting costs for school districts. The latter would provide funding to purchase practice vehicles, secure learning materials, and establish more efficient training for school employees who want to become driving instructors.

Kearsley High School teacher and driver's ed instructor Andy Nester speaks during Secretary of State Jocelyn's Benson January press conference.

Kearsley High School teacher and driver’s ed instructor Andy Nester speaks during Secretary of State Jocelyn’s Benson January press conference. Photo: MEA/Contributed

Just this week, the Michigan’s Senate Pre-K-12 Subcommittee announced an education budget proposal that includes $3 million in funding for expanded driver’s ed programming in 2024-2025—an important step toward implementation of Benson’s grant plans.

MEA spokesperson Thomas Morgan said the Association’s support for expanded driver’s ed is a no-brainer.

“It’s a natural fit for us because we’re representing so many school employees across Michigan, including many that still do provide driver’s ed services,” he said. “We have amazing educators throughout the state who already have relationships with students and families, and it makes perfect sense that students are able to go to those educators who they trust, who already work in their schools, to get this training.”

Michigan school districts would receive funding based on individual needs

Morgan said Benson and the MEA share a long-term goal of providing all Michigan public high school students with affordable access to driver’s education through sustained funding. In the meantime, he explained, grants would allow individual school districts to apply for funding in a way that makes sense for their demographics.

“We could look at it as a need-based grant for areas in low-income areas to defray all the costs. And then others could be a program where they could help lower the costs that are associated with it,” he said. “There are going to be some who choose to still go the private route, and that’s fine, but we want to make sure that everyone has access to high quality driver’s ed programs so that we can reduce inequities and save lives.”

Morgan isn’t being hyperbolic when he says that high-quality driver’s ed has the potential to save lives. CDC data says that motor vehicle crashes are the top cause of death for US teens.

“Just a generation ago, everyone just about got driver’s ed in their schools, and that was where it happened, and it was a good program and it was a low-cost or free program,” he explained. “It’s important that drivers receive high-quality training so they can protect their lives.”

Nester agreed—and reiterated that funding initiatives could make all the difference.

“Any financial aid or help would be a benefit to more of our students,” he said. “A solid educational experience benefits our community and so does producing quality citizens and safe, respectful drivers.”

Author

  • Sophie Boudreau

    Sophie Boudreau is a writer and editor with nearly a decade of experience covering lifestyle, culture, and political topics. She previously served as senior editor at eHow and produced Michigan and Detroit content for Only In Your State.

CATEGORIES: EDUCATION

Politics

Local News

Related Stories
Share This