Privatizing Driver’s Ed: a Lesson in Disenfranchisement

When I went to high school in Wisconsin, Driver’s Ed was a required course, first in the classroom where we learned in-depth about rules and safety, and then behind-the-wheel in a room of simulators which offered the physical experience of turning a key, and locating the brake, gas pedal, blinkers, and gear shift. Finally, we drove in real cars, not just in the city, but on the highway, dealing with ice and other obstacles. We were well prepared to take a road test. And most of us did.

Now my daughter’s of an age to drive in California. But California is winning the race to abandon all practical and experiential learning. No Home Ec., very limited Shop classes, no band, theatre, or orchestra except at wealthier schools. Despite decades, even centuries of educational research, we have reverted to worksheets, videos, and multiple choice tests.

In 1990, the state pulled funding for Driver’s Ed., and though Driver’s Ed. remained a requirement, the state looked the other way as district after district abandoned instruction. Only a quarter of California schools offer Driver’s Ed. now.

What does it take for a teen to get a license in California these days? Strike one: she needs a computer to take the course online. Strike two: the law mandates that his parent or other responsible adult cannot teach him to drive until six hours of professional driving school are purchased. (This cost my neighbor $300). Add to that all the usual DMV fees. And then the parent must spend fifty hours teaching her to drive, including ten at night. Without heroic efforts and financial sacrifice, poor teens don’t get to drive before the age of eighteen. That means they can’t take jobs that aren’t close to home. (Most service jobs have variable hours, so buses can’t be counted on as one student of mine learned after walking home five miles when McDonald’s required him to stay an hour late).

Only fourteen percent of California sixteen-year-olds have a driver’s license. Those who do still can’t help out the family by picking up a sibling from school or driving another to a job. That’s against the law. In a family of more than one teen, each would need a separate car. So wealthy kids can drive. Poor can’t.

Besides material disadvantages, a great danger in privatizing is that poor people are left alone with their self-doubts and fears. Wealthier teens and their parents generally take it for granted that of course they could learn to drive, swim, run marathons, play tennis. Of course, they could succeed in college. Poor people may have their doubts especially if those around them have not achieved these skills.

Education can’t make up for all the inequities outside of school, but once, public education gave poor people a fighting chance to learn to swim, drive, sew, or play an instrument even if their families didn’t own pools, cars, sewing machines, or pianos. Public education was supposed to offer a chance for all students to develop their abilities, not just the wealthy or those good at academics. Now? We aren’t even trying.


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