by PrincessSafiya Byers / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, Wisconsin Watch
February 8, 2024
As the director of Pathways High in Milwaukee, Franz Meyer has students asking him about driver’s education opportunities almost daily.
He said students want to learn to drive, but options are limited and often unaffordable.
“I’d tell them you can go to this place, but they only have so many slots, or you can go here, but it costs $350,” Meyer said. “But it clearly wasn’t enough. Some young people just take the risk and drive anyway.”
He said the cost of driver’s education courses range from $100 to $400.
Help may soon be available. The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, or WisDOT, is expected to roll out a free program that would provide driver’s education for Wisconsin high school students in need.
Wisconsin Act 86, which was signed by Gov. Tony Evers in early December, makes $6 million available for driver’s education.
Common Ground launches campaign
The grants are a result of Common Ground’s three-year campaign, which started after a listening session the group held in 2021.
Common Ground is a nonpartisan organization that allows residents to identify problems in the community and then find solutions.
Jennifer O’Hear, the lead organizer and executive director of Common Ground, said funds are expected to be available by July.
Officials from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation declined to comment on when the funds will be available and how students and their families can access them for driver’s education. They said the program is in the “development stage.”
Listening to community concerns
O’Hear said Common Ground heard 982 people say reckless driving was their No. 1 concern.
“We’ve had many incidents around this area (Milwaukee’s Sherman Park) where young people are getting in cars not knowing how to drive and causing accidents,” said Frank Finch, a Common Ground leader involved in the campaign.
As the conversation evolved from hearing residents’ concerns to creating solutions, Common Ground leaders pointed to driver’s education as a tool to address reckless driving.
According to O’Hear, Wisconsin funded driver’s education from 1961 until 2004.
However, the state still requires youths under 18 to enroll in a school or commercial driving program in order to get a learner’s permit and probationary license.
“We learned that there is a whole generation of kids out there that don’t know how to drive because they never had access to driver’s education,” Finch said.
Pathways High’s Meyer, who has been in his position for six years, participated in the campaign along with several of his students.
One of his students, Shankayla Caldwell, said the cost of driver’s ed created challenges for her.
“I have been struggling to find access to driver’s ed, and it’s been kind of hard because of the prices,” she said. “Like I really, really wanted to drive, and I know I can’t go without my license, so it’s been just a lot of waiting.”
According to a 2016 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Employment and Training Institute study, the most recent data available, only 30% of 18-year-olds in Milwaukee have a driver’s license compared to 66% of 18-year-olds statewide.
Additionally, only 30% of African American and Hispanic 18-year-olds hold a driver’s license compared to 75% of white 18-year-olds.
Through the community listening sessions, Common Ground leaders identified the need for long-term funding for driver’s education for students as a way to combat reckless driving.
O’Hear and Finch said the campaign got rolling when they met Andy Franken, the president of the Wisconsin Insurance Alliance. The group, which represents the property and casualty insurance industry, advocates and advances policy for those groups.
“Once I saw the specific stories and studies about Milwaukee and statewide, I knew this was a cause worth being involved in,” Franken said.