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Bad Students' Driving Penalties Burden Schools

by David Firestone

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. For 10 years now, the teen-age driver's license - that sacred piece of plastic that confers mobility on the restless - has been the bull's eye of every state legislature in the South.

Drop out of high school and 18 states, 12 of them in the South, will revoke a license. Many of those states will also take it away for poor grades or poor behavior. The laws have proved immensely popular with voters and politicians, who are convinced that they have found the trigger mechanism, the ultimate motivator of the American teen-ager.

But among the people who actually teach students and run schools, the license laws are increasingly seen as a waste of time and money, particularly because the time and money are usually theirs, not the state's.

Here in Cumberland County, the school board was already swimming in paperwork, busily revoking the licenses of students with poor attendance and grades, when news recently came that Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker had proposed revoking the licenses of disruptive students as well.

Fed up with the state's good intentions, the board voted to oppose the proposal. Using words like "unfunded mandate" and "big government," school officials say they have had enough of the state's helping hand.

"We appreciate the intent of what they're trying to do, but they don't realize the effect these laws have," said William C. Harrison, superintendent of the county's school district, the fourth-largest in the state, with about 50,000 students. "With all the issues we have on our plate, to overload us now with this kind of paperwork, asking us to do the work of social institutions and the family, well, it's a hard sell around here."

Many educators say parents and the legal system should determine who drives, not school officials, who often have to divert teachers or clerks from educational duties to enforce the law. Louisiana dropped its license-revocation law in 1997 after finding it too expensive. Florida let its law lapse in 1996, but legislators revived it the next year over the objections of school officials.

"We originally thought it would change the dropout rate, but it did not," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards' Association. "We found it extremely burdensome, and the paperwork that each principal and guidance counselor had to do was tremendous, and it did not slow down the dropout rate."

But such concerns are not slowing the momentum of the laws. Wicker's proposal recently passed the state Senate unanimously and appears likely to be enacted. Wicker said there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that the laws work, so the eventual outcome would be worth the administrative burden.

"The driver's license is a very powerful motivator among young people, particularly in the South where we don't have much mass transit," he said. "To young people, the license means everything. It's their freedom, it's a means of being able to move around and be mobile, which is very important to the life of a young person. They will do all they can possibly can to keep it."

There is no concrete proof that any of the laws have kept students in school or motivated them to work harder. The school dropout rates in many states did not change significantly after the laws were passed, and in other states, economic or educational changes were credited with improving school attendance.

"Anyone who tells you they know these laws work isn't telling the truth, because no one has done a study," said Kathy Christie, policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit organization based in Denver that compiles data on state education policies.

"Up to now, these laws have been unpopular only with students, so no one has really put the money in to research it. It's politically easy to do, and it doesn't hurt."

Students are of mixed opinion, depending on their academic standing. Stephen Smith, a sophomore at South View High School here, said a license-revocation law would not bother him because he was on the honor roll, though he added that some of his friends were worried.

Barry Davis, a junior at Cape Fear High School, said the law was unfair.

"I'm no good at math," he said. "So why should that mean I can't drive?"

In North Carolina, one of four states to make academic performance a criterion for keeping a license, the first group of students to lose their licenses, estimated at 25,000 to 30,000, is just being notified that their grades last semester were below the legal limit.

That number is expected to double in the next two years. Under the law, students under 18 lose their license if they drop out, or if they fail to pass 70 percent of their classes.

The law is particularly popular in small towns, where the administrative burden is less and the loss of a car can be a devastating blow to teen-age freedom.

"What's not to love about it?" said Carol Weaver, principal of the small Cape Hatteras High School in the Atlantic coast town of Buxton "When you're trying to change kids' behavior you've got to find something they want, and we use it every day in our disciplinary conferences. I ask them, 'Do you want to drive before you're an old man with a cane?' And they do want to drive."

But in larger districts around the state, school officials are less convinced. Edwin Dunlap, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards' Association, said many districts were concerned about such disciplinary tactics.

"It sounds wonderful," Dunlap said, "but the devil is in the details.

Robert T. Barnes Jr., principal of South View High School, is hardly a role model of political dissent in his Tigers school tie and positive-thinking cheerfulness. But Barnes gets angry when he talks about the secretaries diverted from scholarship searches to handle the paperwork involved in the law and the growing tension the law is causing between students and his office.

"It's placed us in a very adversarial position with kids, which we don't need," he said, estimating that about 50 of the school's 2,400 students will lose their licenses when letters go out this month. "It's real hard to talk to kids about how can we help them improve when we just told them, 'Give me your driver's license.' The two don't exactly go hand in hand."

Schools must check the grades and attendance of students seeking a license or a learning permit; check the license status of students failing one or more courses and send out warning letters to parents; notify the motor vehicles department on revocations, and hear the appeals of students who might be eligible to keep their license because of work.

The job requires half the time of the secretary to the guidance counselors, Barnes said, meaning she has less time to perform scholarship searches or send transcripts.

Inveighing against the bill, The Morning Star of Wilmington suggested in a recent editorial that perhaps legislators should forfeit their driver's licenses if they did not stop legislating after a reasonable period.

"There's a good chance," it said, "a few school principals would be willing to do the paperwork."

Thursday, March 11, 1999
Copyright 1999 The New York Times


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