A growing number of Illinois students will not be able to take their parents’ car for a spin on their Sweet 16 because of a state mandate that increases demands placed on high school students enrolled in driver’s education programs — tripling the time a student must hold a driver’s permit and doubling the number of hours they must spend behind the wheel with mom and dad.

Bethany Williams is learning how to navigate street intersections and what it takes to drive a vehicle with a stick shift.

But instead of sitting behind a steering wheel, Bethany is learning these lessons at a desk in Tom Johnson’s classroom at Glenwood High School. The 15-year-old freshman won’t receive her driver’s license when she turns 16 in September, but that’s OK with her.

“I feel good about it but I know I’m not getting a car,” she said.

Bethany is one of hundreds of area students who will not be able to take their parents’ car for a spin on their Sweet 16 because of a state mandate that increases demands placed on high school students enrolled in driver’s education programs — tripling the time a student must hold a driver’s permit and doubling the number of hours they must spend behind the wheel with mom and dad.

But at least students in Illinois have the option to learn to drive on school time. A state law requiring schools to offer driver’s ed effectively protects the programs from being eliminated, as they have been in other states.

According to an Associated Press article, many schools that are not required to offer driver’s ed are slashing the programs or offering them outside of the regular school day to save money.

For example, the Volusia County, Fla. school system replaced daytime driver’s ed with after-school, Saturday and summer courses, saving $400,000 a year.

The effects of state and national fiscal troubles are not completely bypassing central Illinois, however.

In Taylorville, high school principal Thomas Campbell isn’t confident that his program won’t be on the chopping block in the future as cutbacks in other areas of the district’s budget affect his school’s driver’s education program.

“(No cutbacks are planned) right now, but in the next year or two years, I could be telling you a totally different story,” Campbell said. “Up to this point, the biggest problem is maintaining the number of behind-the-wheel (instructors).”

About two or three years ago, when the economy began its decline, Campbell said, the district was forced to make significant cuts at the high school level.

Retiring teachers were not replaced. To maintain the district’s meager budget, extra assignments, or courses to teach, are not handed to Taylorville teachers as liberally as in the past.

The effect is the school has fewer driver’s ed instructors.

“As we do other cutbacks, teachers have to take on extra instruction in classroom or supervision and that leaves me less time to assign behind-the-wheel (instruction),” Campbell said. “ … I would say if we as a district are impacted pretty significantly in the budget area because of the state’s financial crisis, (driver’s ed) could very much be an area that we could be looking at — and definitely not the only area.”

Looking ahead

Elsewhere, school officials are cautiously optimistic about keeping strong driver’s ed programs, but are also keeping an eye on the economy and money for schools dispersed by the state.

“Right now, (driver’s ed programs) are a pretty stable curriculum, but there’s always a possibility with the (state) budget being the way it is,” said Cliff Cameron, a driver’s ed instructor at Pleasant Plains High School. “It wouldn’t be a good thing (to cut). It’s a very important class that we have.”

PORTA High School Principal Darren Hartry foresees stability in his program, but never says never.

“We’re kind of in the middle of taking a look at what things can be cut, like everybody else right now,” Hartry said. “We’re trying our best not to get into programs … but if we have another year where the state is not paying its bills, a lot of things are going to have to be looked at.”

In Springfield, with Superintendent Walter Milton’s recent announcement of more than $5 million in cuts to the District 186 budget, everything seems to be on the table but driver’s ed.

“Like English teachers, driver’s ed teachers will always be part of the curriculum,” said Jimmy Rice, spokesman for the Springfield School District.

In Taylorville, Dave Butcher, a longtime employee of Bob Ridings Ford Chrysler Jeep, says the dealership usually leases one or two vehicles (usually Ford Tauruses) to Taylorville High to be used in for driver’s ed. He calls it a civic duty, and notes “it’s kind of a good thing to start 16 to 17-year-old kids on our type of products.”

Neither the school nor the dealership benefit much financially from the partnership. But neither side sees any point in changing anything.

“We don’t charge a lot and really don’t lease the cars per se. We pretty much get the interest cost and insurance cost covered,” Butcher said.

“We’ve always been pretty lucky and had good relations with local dealerships,” Campbell said.

Other options

When the state changed the demands placed on driving novices before they were able to obtain a license, most — if not all — districts in the area moved their driver’s ed programs to begin during a student’s freshman year instead of during sophomore year.

In 2007, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed legislation that, among other things, increased the time teens must hold a driver’s permit (from three months to nine), and doubled the number of hours students must drive with their parents (from 25 hours to 50) before they can get a license.

After the law went into effect in 2008, area driver’s education instructors said more students than ever were waiting past their 16th birthday for a license. And private driving instructors got busy.

“We were totally swamped,” said Craig Hausman, owner of J.R.’s Driving School. The Champaign-based driving school also provides private driving instruction to students in Springfield and Quincy.

To obtain a license by their 16th birthday, many students came to Craig’s school in 2007.

Typically, J.R.’s Driving School’s six classes a year each have about 10 students. But in 2007, no class had fewer than 26 students.

The heavy traffic didn’t last long, though. The school saw only 26 students all year in 2008.

“Last year, the high schools were catching up with the idea, and we had practically no business at all. Now we’re getting phone calls and we’re going to be picking up,” Hausman said. “The economy the way it is, it’s hurting public schools, but it hits us first. A lot of parents say, ‘We’re not going to pay for driver’s ed when we can get it at school (for less).’”

It costs $295 to take a driving class at J.R.’s Driving School. The state caps the amount a school district can charge for driver’s ed at $50 without special permission from the Secretary of State’s office.

But that’s an option at least one school district may pursue.

In Pawnee, driver’s ed instructor Steve Kirby said there has been talk of increasing the fee to offset the cost to the district to operate the driver’s ed program and its vehicle.

Molly Beck can be reached at (217) 788-1526 or molly.beck@sj-r.com.