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Driver’s ed takes a new direction with private companies


The lowest-priced driver’s education for area students can be found in the Des Moines public schools, but pay a little more, and your kid could learn to drive in a Hummer.

Business at private driver’s education companies in Greater Des Moines is increasing both because of their flexibility and because local school districts are choosing not to take on the cost and liability involved with the instruction.

Iowa law requires that all school districts offer driver’s education, either directly, or by bringing in a private company to teach the course. Some districts are retaining full ownership in their driver’s ed programs, while others are either combining offerings with those of private companies or contracting out the responsibility completely.

The Des Moines Independent Community School District offers four sessions of driver’s ed during the school year and at three centers during the summer months. Including summer school, 931 students in the district have taken driver’s ed through the traditional means during this school year.

Gary Miller, director of driver’s education for the Des Moines schools, says, “Cost is an advantage of taking it with us. Our cost is $250. I think the last time we jumped in price was about three years ago.”

Miller said the cost of driver’s education has risen since he started overseeing the program four years ago. “The cost keeps going up because of the rising price of cars and gas and instructor’s salaries,” he said.

J.R. Phillips, who purchased the AutoPilots driver’s education company this month, predicts that more and more schools will cut driver’s education from their budgets in order to redirect funds to other areas.

“I’ve always wanted to own my own business, and I saw an opportunity here, knowing that area schools were going through budget constraints and were losing money on their driver’s ed programs,” Phillips said.

When schools decide to exit from teaching driver’s ed, companies such as AutoPilots and StreetSmarts Driver’s Education enter to take over the responsibility. J.C. Meinecke, owner of StreetSmarts, which is under contract with the Johnston Community School District to provide its driver’s ed program, said the district estimated it has saved $20,000 this year by contracting out the program.

AutoPilots and StreetSmarts partner with the Indianola Community School District offer courses at the high school during the school year. The district offers its own driver’s ed classes during the summer, but decided it would benefit families in the district if the instruction was also offered year-round, said Tom Narak, superintendent of Indianola schools.

“Sometimes kids are gone during the summer, or they’re so busy that it’s hard for them to take driver’s ed then,” Narak said. “We offer the facility to the private companies during the school year as a service to these families.”

When AutoPilots and StreetSmarts use a school’s facilities, they also hire the school’s teachers as instructors for the classes whenever possible.

“What’s appealing to those particular schools is that a lot of time, we use their teachers and pay out of our pocketbooks for their time,” Phillips said. “The kids like it because they know the instructors and feel more comfortable there.”

Narak said it ends up being a low-risk partnership for the school. “It works out pretty well for the district,” he said. “We allow them to use the facility, but other than that, there’s really no cost to us.”

The Indianola district charges $275 for the summer course. Students who take the course from AutoPilots during the school year pay the company rate of $299.The StreetSmarts rate ranges from $275 to $295, depending on whether the student is enrolled full-time at the school instruction site.

“It doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of competition by having both companies teach here,” said Ralph Edwards, Indianola High School vice principal and driver’s education coordinator. “I think the prices have stayed a little more competitive by giving our students the choice.”

Another private driving instruction company in Greater Des Moines is Drive Tek, which advertises a rate of $339. This company has three centers in Des Moines and one in Ankeny, and also offers courses in some other communities near Des Moines.

Besides having year-round courses that may not otherwise be offered in some districts, the private instruction companies focus on flexibility as a prime selling point.

“The private institutes like ourselves, we have more flexibility, where the schools have their set times and shifts,” Meinecke said.

StreetSmarts even advertises that it will drop your kids off at home when the class is over, and that its instructors are willing to give extra attention to students who need it, which helps ensure the company’s reputation for giving thorough instruction.

Phillips says AutoPilots seems to be best known for is its use of Chrysler PT Cruisers. But, the company also uses Ford Tauruses, Chevrolet Malibus and a Hummer.

“The Hummer doesn’t get used much at the beginning of a session, but later on, we use it as an incentive for the kids,” Phillips said. “It is an encouragement to a lot of the kids to do well on their tests and driving.”

Another advantage for the private schools is that they have options for completing the driver’s ed course in a shorter amount of time. At StreetSmarts, kids can finish in as quick as three weeks during the summer. It tends to be about four weeks at AutoPilots. The Des Moines public schools do a six-week course. All classes must meet the minimum state requirement of 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of driving.

In Miller’s opinion, spreading the course out over six weeks is ideal, because it allows kids more time to practice driving with their parents. Phillips and Meinecke don’t see a problem with condensing the course down, as long as the students are getting practice outside class. Meinecke even says he thinks students build upon their skills better in the shorter amount of time.

“We have noticed that kids retain more information in the three-week period compared to a longer class because they’re going more consistently,” he said. “They’re driving more often, so I believe that they catch on or stay more familiar.”

Whether driver’s education is handled through a public school course or a private company, instructors agree that it’s a serious matter.

“We have a huge responsibility to the public in general, as well as our students and parents,” Phillips said. “We’re giving them a certificate of completion, which will enable them to get their license. If these kids can’t drive and they get in an accident, we have a huge responsibility.”

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