MILWAUKEE — A school director and a nonprofit in Milwaukee working to remove barriers for students in Wisconsin to take Driver’s Education courses. Their efforts led to Governor Evers signing a statewide bill that will put 6 million dollars a year towards providing free Driver’s Ed for students in need.
Director of Pathways High Franz Meyer said his students were coming to him with questions about how to get access to Driver’s Ed. Those high school students said their main cause of concern was the price of driving lessons.
The Milwaukee charter school doesn’t have a school bus system, so the students needed to find other ways to get to school, such as taking the city bus or driving themselves. Driving was the easiest of the two.
“Driving a car provides so much utility and freedom for kids,” Meyer told WTMJ. “They’re able to get to work, get to and from school… make sure they’re able to get access to different opportunities, [and] doing things for their families.”
He expressed that some students were driving to school, but he had a suspicion they may not have had driver’s licenses. He soon realized that a lot of his students were faced with a difficult choice.
“If the choice is getting to work and having money, or not having money and paying $400 for Driver’s Ed… in some ways, it’s easier just to drive and hope that nothing happens,” he said. “We work with students and try to educate them [and say]: ‘That’s putting your life and everyone else’s life and futures in jeopardy to do that.'”
Meyer is also a strategy team member for Common Ground, a non-profit, and he and the company decided to take action to find solutions to this Driver’s Ed dilemma. The nonprofit started a listening campaign in 2021, and after hearing from 982 people, their main concern was reckless driving in the community. They also found that since 2004, the state of Wisconsin has not funded access to Driver’s Ed but still required people to have a license.
Lead Organizer and Executive Director of Common Ground Jennifer O’Hear told WTMJ they worked together with the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance and Rep. Bob Donovan (R – Greenfield) to help push a bill through the Wisconsin legislature that would provide Driver’s Ed courses to high school students in Wisconsin.
Governor Evers signed Assembly Bill 394 in December, and the bill will put 6 million dollars a year towards Driver’s Ed. The money will be given in the form of grants and will be available to students who have free or reduced lunch.
“Right now, the [Wisconsin] Department of Transportation is creating what will be the process for distributing those funds,” O’Hear said. “We’re expecting that to be public July 1.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Administration’s fiscal estimate, 10,000 to 13,300 students will be eligible to receive driver’s education grants under the program. O’Hear said this is a huge step.
“I think the perfect solution would be that every kid will get Driver’s Ed as part of their high school education, but the perfect solution is not really attainable right now,” she said. “This is a great start and will help with things like reckless driving… but also help kids with getting jobs and voting and just the general process of coming of age.”
Director of Pathways High Franz Meyer said passing this bill makes it a “whole different ballgame” for high school students.
“Instead of hoping that they have access to a program, they’ll be able to pick a program that fits with their schedules, close to their home, and access it for a reasonable amount of money,” he said. “Kids are going to be able to learn how to drive legally.”
This bill removes financial barriers for thousands of students in Wisconsin while hopefully decreasing the amount of reckless driving in the state.
Common Ground Executive Director Jennifer O’Hear said, “For me, this program really shows the importance of regular folks coming together and proposing solutions around some of the problems they see in their community,” she said. “Everyone should have access to Driver’s Ed.”
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