The impact of two decades without state-funded driver's ed in Wisconsin

"I went back the third time and it was $600 and I was like, 'woah!'" said high school senior Shankayla Caldwell.
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Posted at 8:16 AM, Oct 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-03 09:16:21-04

MILWAUKEE — Shankayla Caldwell keeps running into the same roadblock.

"I would like to know why is it so expensive,” she said.

For the past two years, the Pathways High School senior says the price of private driver’s ed has been too steep for her family to afford.

"My first price was like $350,” she said. “Then I went back the second time and they said like $450 and I was like, ‘Oh my God’, then I went back the third time and it was $600 and I was like, 'Woah!'"

It’s a barrier far too many Wisconsin teens have faced since 2003 when the state stopped reimbursing school districts for driver’s ed.

Since then, only one in four school districts offer driver’s ed as a class during the normal school day. Caldwell’s charter school isn’t one of them.

“Once you turn 18, you can bypass driver’s ed and just go get your license. Why is that a path you do not want to take?” reporter Ben Jordan asked.

"I want the experience like the car experience, being able to learn more just not going straight to the DMV and just getting my license,” she replied.

A 2015 study by UW-Milwaukee found just 14 percent of 18-year-olds from Milwaukee’s poorest ZIP codes have a driver’s license.

"Once that study came out, we knew that the Milwaukee students were not being served and something had to be done,” said Nicole Jacobson with Milwaukee Recreation.

Jacobson says it’s why they teamed up with Milwaukee Public Schools to launch MPS Drive. The program annually provides about 4,000 students with driver’s ed for just $35.

“Four-thousand students being able to go through driver’s ed is quite a few, but when you look at MPS and some 70,000 students who go there, are students still slipping through the cracks? Jordan asked.

"I believe so, yes,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson says there are still openings for MPS students, but she acknowledges the program is more expensive for teens who do not attend MPS and those opportunities fill up quickly.

“20 years without state-funded driver’s ed, how would you describe the state of driver’s ed in Wisconsin without that funding?” Jordan asked.

"I think it shows up on our roads,” Jacobson said. “I think that double-decade gap of education and that missing critical piece of education statewide shows up on all of our roads."

But that two-decade gap in state-funded driver’s ed is set to come to an end.

A Milwaukee-based organization called Common Ground and the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance called on the state to designate $6 million to help students receive free driver’s ed.

That money comes from insurance fees already sent to the state. Up to 15,000 teens who qualify for free or reduced lunch at school would be eligible for free driver’s ed.

"I think it's a great start,” Jacobson said.

Lawmakers are working through the legislative process to determine the parameters for the grant program.

Caldwell says for students like her, the positive impact would go beyond those teens and their families to everyone who shares the road.

"I want to know the signs and I want to know what not to do and how to just abide by the law,” she said.