Friday, March 10, 2006

Boondoggle Of The Week: Driver's Ed For The Blind

How's this for an example of government wastage and bureaucratic buffoonery at its worst? Chicago's public school system requires blind students to take driver's education: (To save readers from registration hassles, we've reprinted the whole Chicago Tribune article.)
Mayra Ramirez scored an A in driver's education this year, but sitting through the 10-week class felt like a bad joke to the Curie Metropolitan High School sophomore.

Ramirez is blind. She knows she's never going to drive. She can think of a lot of things she'd rather be studying than rules of the road, but she didn't have a choice.

Chicago Public Schools requires all sophomores to take the class and pass a written road-rules exam--a graduation requirement that affects about 30 blind and visually impaired students in specialized programs at Curie and Payton College Preparatory High.

"In other classes, you don't really feel different because you can do the work other people do," said Ramirez, 16. "But in driver's ed, it does give us the feeling we're different. In a way, it brought me down, because it reminds me of something I can't do."

State law requires that all districts offer driver's education, but does not mandate it as a graduation requirement. For the hundreds of high schools that do, there should be some exemption option for disabled students who cannot drive, a state education official said.

"It defies logic to require blind students to take this course ... and waste their academic time," said Meta Minton, spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Chicago's public schools have no such exemption. That is something the Curie and Payton students are pushing to change, through an advocacy program at the Blind Service Association.

District officials said Thursday that they would be willing to consider a change in the policy and give students the opportunity to earn credits in another course.

By law, any parent can ask for a change in a disabled student's individualized education plan, or IEP, which could exempt a student from driver's education as a graduation requirement. But this option is rarely, if ever, outlined to blind students in Chicago, who are told that they have to take the class if they want to graduate, students and teachers said.

"I can't explain why up to this point no one has raised the issue and suggested a better way for visually impaired students to opt out of driver's ed," said school system spokesman Michael Vaughn. "They have to make a really strong case for modifying their IEP because we want the students to take a full course load. But [blindness] ... is a compelling reason."

The advocacy project surfaced last month, when mentor Mazen Istanbouli asked the students if there was any cause they would like to champion in their community or school. Nearly every teen mentioned something about the driver's ed class--a requirement that floored the adults who work routinely with blind teens. Although some suspected money might be a motivation in the policy, that doesn't look likely; school districts only get about $30 from the state for each student who completes the classroom portion of driver's education. Chicago doesn't offer behind-the-wheel driver training or simulators.

Istanbouli, a DePaul University professor who is blind, met Thursday with about 25 students from the two schools to outline the issue and discuss what they can do to change it, including writing letters to school and political leaders.

"I hear all of you are going to be our future drivers," said Istanbouli, a greeting that sparked laughter around the room.

Not every student thought the class was a waste, but all agreed that it should be an option for students with disabilities that make it impossible for them to drive. The students also questioned why the district can't modify the class to make it more meaningful for those interested in the subject. Study guides are not routinely printed in Braille or large type, and many key lessons are presented on video.

For Teniya Booker, 17, who lost her sight after she was shot at age 3, the class proved to be one more struggle in an already challenging class load. The Curie junior said she went to school feeling ill because she was worried about flunking the class if she missed more than three days. And she only passed because one of her special education teachers translated some material into Braille.

"Why should we have to memorize how a street sign looks when we are never going to see them while driving?" Booker wrote in a letter to Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. (21st).

Payton teacher Douglas Anzlovar told the students that this issue isn't new or confined to Chicago. As the only visually impaired student at tiny Putnam County High in Downstate Illinois in the mid-1990s, Anzlovar never thought to enroll in driver's ed. Nine weeks before graduation, however, school officials noticed the omission and questioned whether Anzlovar should be allowed to graduate. But in the end, reason prevailed and the district waived the requirement.

One teacher argued that the lessons aren't a waste of time.

"I don't think you can ever get enough traffic safety ... and we do a lot on how to make good decisions," said Brent Johnston, a Hinsdale South High School teacher and a chairman of the Illinois High School/College Driver's Education Association. "Still, this shouldn't be the school's decision; it should be mom and dad's decision. A little common sense would go a long way."
I've seen more than my share of idiotic government spending in my time, but this one ranks right up there with those $600 hammers and this year's pork-filled highway bill. This is the type of nonsense that makes large segments of the public give serious consideration to whether or not public education is a worthwile expenditure of the taxpayers' hard-earned money.

How is it that people who implement such asinine policies are ever put in charge of our children? And what can be done to get them out?

Mortarboard Tip: Joanne Jacobs
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