Education

Scarcity of driver education instructors delays students’ ability to get their licenses

Lander Magoon, left, checks behind him as he takes a lesson with driver’s education instructor Joe Barch in Shelburne on Saturday, Oct. 15. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Joe Barch sat calmly in the passenger seat of his 2016 Ford Fusion, marked “student driver” in bold lettering backed by yellow highlighter on the bumper. 

“What are you forgetting?” he asked Hagan Smith — a 16-year-old junior from Charlotte — who was moments away from pulling out of the Davis Park parking lot in Shelburne. 

Smith sat behind the wheel while Lander Magoon, a 15-year-old who is also a Charlotte resident, observed from the back seat. 

Smith activated his turn signal and peeked over his left shoulder before easing off the brake and tentatively pulling out from underneath colorful trees lining the tennis courts.

“Well done,” Barch said. 

Barch has helped high schoolers navigate Vermont roadways for 26 of his 30 years in teaching. About six years ago, he decided to found his own private school, 802 Driving School, because high school programs lacked the capacity for all students. He said a number of families told him they wanted to ensure their children would not face delays in graduating from the school’s driver education program — paying hundreds of dollars, and sometimes more, to secure their child’s spot in a class. 

“​​More people asked me to go into private so that they can get more opportunities that a lot of schools are just cutting back on with driver’s education,” Barch said. “They've been doing it for decades now.”

As more families switch to private programs, some young would-be drivers who cannot afford to do that are waiting longer than usual to get their licenses.

Magoon said he decided to take driver education through Barch’s private school because he worried he would not get into the course offered by Champlain Valley Union High School because the program fills up quickly and they “only want upperclassmen.”

Every public high school is required to offer driver education, according to Section 2351 of the Vermont State Board of Education Manual of Rules and Practices. But the requirement does not specify how many students a program must be able to handle, Barch said. 

“It is an unfunded mandate,” Barch said. “They are saying, ‘if we’re offering it to some students, then we’re meeting the letter of the law.’ But that’s not necessarily the spirit of the law.”

Inside the car

Barch, who is president of the American Driver Traffic Safety Education Association and until last year was also a full-time driving instructor at Mount Mansfield Union High School, guides his students through the driving lesson by talking the entire time. He offers gentle reminders — “You’re a little over 30” to let students know when they are speeding, or, “How’s your rear zone?” when they travel through an intersection. 

When his students do something right, Barch is sure to let them know, offering congratulations throughout the drive, such as “That was brilliant!” or “Genius!” before explaining why what they did was correct. 

At one point, Barch directed Magoon to perform a Vermont turnaround on Joy Street in South Burlington, across from the WCAX headquarters. 

“If you mess this up, you’re making it on the evening news,” Barch joked, earning a chuckle from Magoon before he began his maneuver. 

To receive a junior driver’s license in Vermont, “all 16- and 17-year-olds must have passed a state-approved driver education and training course,” according to the Department of Motor Vehicles

Driver’s education instructor Joe Barch, right, guides Lander Magoon during a lesson in Shelburne. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A junior driver’s license in the state comes with a few restrictions, such as limiting the passengers allowed in the car for the first three months to those above age 25, an instructor or a parent. For the second three months, the junior driver may transport immediate family, and after six months, there are no restrictions, according to the DMV.

An approved driver education course must offer at least 30 hours of classroom time, six hours of observation and six hours of driving time for students under 18, according to the DMV.

Those age 18 or older and have passed their permit test can take the driver test and obtain a license without taking classes. They can also take a state-approved adult driver training refresher course, which consists of just six hours of classroom time and six hours of driving instruction, according to the DMV. 

High schoolers in Vermont can either take driver education for free through their high school or privately at an additional cost. High school driver education programs tend to stretch out over a semester, while private programs typically are completed in just six to seven weeks, according to Barch.

Most high schools require students to be at least sophomores to enroll in driver education programs, Barch said. But, because of long waitlists, they may not be able to take the class until their junior year, well after turning 16.

Tammy Pregent, Education Research and Information Specialist at the Agency of Education, did not respond to emails and a voicemail requesting comment.

Short on funding

Barch still works part time at Mount Mansfield Union High School, which once employed two and a half driver-ed teachers. Now, there’s just one full-time teacher and Barch himself, according to his successor, Brian Chandler. 

Chandler has been teaching driver education at Mount Mansfield High for the past five years. Before that, he was a health and physical education teacher at the school and coached multiple sports teams. 

Chandler did not get involved in driver ed until he was well into his teaching career and said the reason families are switching from public to private is because of instructor shortages. The average age of instructors statewide is rising, and younger teachers are either not getting involved or they are not seeking a teacher’s license with public schools, according to Chandler.  

“I just feel like schools are really, really hurting for driver education because there's nobody willing to fill the void when someone leaves or someone retires,” Chandler said. 

About 15 years ago, “most people who wanted to get it could,” Barch said of Mount Mansfield Union’s driver education program. Now, the school — which has almost 800 students — can teach driver education to about 60 students a semester, or 120 students per year, according to Barch. 

Driver’s education instructor Joe Barch takes students out on a lesson in Shelburne. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

With fewer instructors, high schools cannot keep up with demand for driver ed, which means longer waiting times to get into a class, Chandler said. That’s why some families are willing to pay to skip that wait time. 

Like Barch, Chandler has his own private school, Chandler Driving Academy, which he started about five years ago. He said he teaches his private classes evenings and weekends during the school year. 

Chandler charges $850 for his private course, he said. The lowest cost he has seen is Barch’s course, which is around $730 currently but will rise to $750 next year, according to Barch. But Chandler said he has also seen prices in the thousands. 

Meanwhile, Barch said about $75 per student is allocated to high school driver’s education, a number that “hasn't changed since 1975. The funding is just not there.” 

“There are families that pay taxes to support my teacher contract” at Mount Mansfield, Chandler said. “Yet they're willing to pay whatever the fee is to have their child go through a six-week program.”

‘A level of urgency’

For most families who decided to enroll students in private rather than public driver education, convenience is the primary reason, according to Amy Gifford, who enrolled her son in the Chandler Driving Academy after a sports injury caused him to miss out on Mount Mansfield’s driver education program.

“It was really just a speed thing,” Gifford said. Students in the school program are not guaranteed to get in by their 16th birthday, she said. 

“My younger son has a bunch of friends that have to wait until the spring semester, and they're still not sure they're going to get in necessarily,” she said. 

“You end up with a whole population of sophomores or juniors who aren't going to get driver's ed unless their families can afford to pay for it privately,” Chandler said.

To illustrate the demand for driver ed, Chandler said a family once offered him double his usual price if they could get each of their five kids through the program. Chandler turned them down. 

“That just gives you a sense that there's a level of urgency out there,” he said. “The people who are doing that have the means to do that, but there are lots of people within our community that don't have the means.”

Luckily for Smith and Magoon, they will get their licenses close to their 16th birthdays — along with the private price tag. 

Barch ends every driving lesson with a debriefing period, where he asks his students to tell him how the actions they performed while driving related to what they learned from his class. 

“Timing intersections,” Smith answered. “Lane positioning,” Magoon said, and their responses drew a “good for you!” from Barch before the two students got out of the car, once again parked neatly under the trees at Davis Park.

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Dominic Minadeo

About Dominic

Dom is a senior at the University of Vermont majoring in English. He previously worked as a culture reporter for the Vermont Cynic and as an intern for the Community News Service at UVM, where he held the position of Deputy News Editor of the Winooski News.

Email: dminadeo@vtdigger.org

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