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WI lawmakers hold hearing to provide driver’s ed grants for up to 15,000 low-income students

State lawmakers held their first public hearing Wednesday on a bill that’s expected to get the driver’s ed grant program up and running.
Wisconsin State Capitol
Posted at 9:22 AM, Sep 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-21 10:22:42-04

MADISON — State-funded driver’s education is one step closer to returning to Wisconsin for the first time in 20 years.

State lawmakers held their first public hearing Wednesday on a bill that’s expected to get the driver’s ed grant program up and running.

For the past two years, high school junior Khalil Stewart has been trying to get into driver’s ed, but one thing keeps getting in the way.

"I saw $650 and I shut that down right there because that's a lot of money,” he said.

The charter school student from Milwaukee says the cost barrier has been a burden he and his family haven’t been able to overcome.

"My family has to choose, do they want to buy groceries or they wanna let me do driver's ed,” he said. “I’m pretty sure they're going to choose groceries every time."

Khalil heard about legislation that would provide free driver’s ed for students like him who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school, so he caught a ride to the state capitol to advocate for the assistance.

"Some days I have to take the bus and I'm late to school, some days I ride the bike and I'm late and some days they can just drop me off if they're not feeling tired because they do thirds shift,” he told state lawmakers.

$6 million has already been set aside by the state to provide grants for students in Khalil’s shoes. That money isn’t coming from taxpayers but rather funds the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance already sends to the state for industry fees.

"What we've seen in the insurance industry is since 2004 a large number of kids are forgoing driver's education and that percentage is growing,” said Wisconsin Insurance Alliance President Andy Franken.

Franken says a Milwaukee organization called Common Ground brought the idea to their attention and the two groups formed a partnership to improve road safety in the classroom.

Franken says two decades without state-funded driver’s ed has come at another cost.

"I think companies have seen, and nationally we've seen an increase in 16 to 20-year-old accidents,” he said. “It's sort of dramatic over the past couple decades."

With broad bipartisan support, lawmakers say all that remains is passing the legislation that will set the parameters for how the Wisconsin Department of Transportation administers the grants.

The author of the bill, Rep. Bob Donovan, says it will provide $400 grants for up to 15,000 low-income students no matter if they go to public, private or charter schools.

"Our entire state benefits when our young adults are trained in the rules of the road,” Donovan said.

Khalil says this would benefit his family, too.

"If I don't have to ask them for a ride that means I'm hopping in the car that they gave me or I bought myself and I'm going to work, I'm going to school, I'm taking on my own responsibilities,” he said.

Lawmakers expect this bill to pass this fall and Governor Tony Evers says he already plans to sign it into law. That means the driver’s ed grant program could be in place before the end of the year.