In a recent attempt to balance the budget after having reduced state revenues by cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy – the NC legislature voted to eliminate state funding for driver education programs at public schools across the state.
I did not pick up on this when it happened. What with their relentless attacks on poor and minority communities, public education, women’s rights, and voting rights, its really hard to keep track of how systematically this group of legislators is destroying many of the things that I love and respect about North Carolina.
Ironically, I heard about the cuts just after returning from a week-long international meeting in Romania where I had defended 15 and 16-year olds driving to my European colleagues who were shocked and horrified that our 15-year old daughter has her driving permit and will soon have her license. In most European countries the driving age is apparently 18.
I explained about our driver’s ed classes and that kids have to have 60 hours of supervised driving before they are eligible for the driving test. I told them about the driving restrictions on new teenage drivers that help to acclimate them to good driving practices in the early stages of their driving independence. I reminded them about the differences in the size of our respective countries and communities and the fact that most US cities lack adequate public transportation. American dependence on cars is very different from European dependence on cars.
And then I returned home to find a message on my answering from my daughter’s principal explaining that the NC legislature had cut public funding of driver education programs and that the Guilford County school system alone needs $1.2 million to cover our program. Apparently even with the $65 fee, Guilford County still needs $800,000 to pay for the program. Guilford County has been forced to suspend the program until they can find a way to pay for it.
Let’s be clear about what is happening. One of the most important functions of government is to protect its citizens. Governments step up and provide goods and services that help our communities, often paying for things that are not necessarily profitable but that are generally recognized as contributing to the common good.
Evidence demonstrates that driver’s education programs, alongside the newer restrictions that have been put in place across the country (GDL or graduated driver licensing), help prepare our teenagers to be safe and responsible drivers. This is an essential public good when we consider that teens are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers over the age of 20. This is a public good not only for our teens but also for all the people who drive on our roads.
I was livid when I heard the message from our principal that the county was going to start charging families $65 for driver’s ed. I was even more irate when he said that we have had to suspend our driver’s education program until we can figure out how to pay for the shortfall.
My daughter has already taken driver’s ed, even if she hadn’t we can afford to pay the $65. But there are lots of families who can’t. While $65 may not seem like a lot to many of the legislators in Raleigh; if you don’t have enough money to buy groceries the last week of the month – $65 is a whole lot of money.
As a Christian committed to anti-poverty work, I was appalled by the legislature’s actions that will disproportionately affect poor families and poor communities in NC.
However, in the midst of the racism and prejudice particularly against black people that permeates the United States – we need to think about every legislative change and social action that occurs in our communities in light of what it means when people say, “Black Lives Matter.”
One thing, I would argue, that it means is that we must be suspicious about ANY legislation that is passed that has a disproportionate negative impact on black lives in our community. Given the disproportionate rates of poverty in black communities in NC, the defunding of driver education programs will have a disproportionate impact on the lives of black teens in our communities.
This legislative act is bad for a lot of reasons – it is greedy and selfish, it disregards the public good, is represents government letting down our teenagers – but in the midst of our current cultural climate, we must also say that its disproportionate impact on poor black communities highlights the dangerous and deceptive way that racism functions in society.
image Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_kk5hy’>kk5hy / 123RF Stock Photo</a>