Changes in the driver’s seat for student program
By Emily McFarlan email@example.com August 12, 2012 8:06PM
John Dewindt, 15, of Elgin walks through a room of classmates wearing simulated impairment goggles or "drunk goggles" Thursday at Tri-Country Driving School in Elgin. Students are given the opportunity to wear the goggles during driving class, to understand what their vision would be like after drinking a certain amount of alcohol and the dangers of driving and drinking. August 8, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 14, 2012 6:06AM
Recent new rules for driving — from outlawing texting to allowing disabled students to get a license — are leading to some equally major changes in driver’s education programs in Illinois.
And not all of those changes are being welcomed by the schools and their instructors.
No one seems to have a problem with regulations addressing the dangers of texting while driving, nor new technology that allows students with various disabilities to drive.
But there also are new requirements for driver’s ed teachers in public schools. Plus, a new Illinois law that could impact private, or commercial, driving schools went to Gov. Pat Quinn at the end of June. (See accompanying story.)
Added to that are severe financial strains in Illinois, all making some school districts rethink how they’ve offered the program.
“I think just the unfunded mandates and the schools being in a numbers crunch — that’s a big change for everybody,” said Jeff Bral, divisional head of driver’s education, physical education and health — as well as athletics director — at Bartlett High School.
It was hard enough finding driver’s ed instructors before increased requirements for those instructors at public schools took effect in February, according to Bral.
The Illinois State Board of Education requires driver’s ed instructors who teach in a public school district to have a secondary teaching certificate and an endorsement for safety and driver education. Previously, it had taken instructors 16 credit hours to earn that endorsement. Now it requires 24.
ISBE approved that increase in October 2009, giving instructors two years’ notice to meet the new requirements. The board’s decision came as “technology has come in a bit,” and it wanted to add some of those issues and advances into instruction, according to Bral.
“As any good teacher would, you’ve got to be current with the new stuff. That’s something we’ve really pushed here,” he said.
At Bartlett, it’s “stereotypically” PE teachers who teach driver’s ed. Five of its 12 PE teachers have that endorsement, the divisional head said.
Last year, Bartlett High only had two instructors to teach classes of about 25 students each. That’s up from classes averaging nine students each. Bral said he had to hire three community members with the endorsement for safety and driver education and bring over instructors from Streamwood and Elgin high schools to help Bartlett students get all their required hours behind the wheel of a car with an instructor.
One good provision of the law for the district is that current instructors have been “grandfathered” in and won’t need to earn the extra credits, according to Bral.
The grandfather clause was put in place because driver’s ed is an unfunded state mandate. It cost Elgin-based School District U46 $230,182 in 2010, according to U46 spokesman Patrick Mogge.
That was the last time the district calculated the cost as part of its application for a waiver from ISBE allowing it to charge students more than $50 for the course, as required by state rules.
U46 has held the cost to students steady at $300 since the 2007-08 school year, Mogge said.
Neighboring Community Unit School District 300 also charges students $300 for its program, which costs the Carpentersville-based district more than $120,000 each year, according to district spokeswoman Allison Strupeck.
As for all the new rules and the financial constraints, Bral said, “We do the best we can with what we have for our kids.”