DES MOINES - A little extra practice behind the wheel with mom or dad in advance of the driving test is a rite of passage for many soon-to-be-licensed Iowans.
But what if it was the only practice?
That's the critical question behind a bill that gives home-schooling parents the same standing as instructors in public and private driving schools.
It's one of several bills moving this session - one gives parents tax breaks to pay for books, another allows up to four non-related students in a home-school class - that address some persistent complaints from home-school parents and organizations.
"It just doesn't make sense for students to have to go to public school for just this one thing," said Norman Pawlewski, a lobbyist for the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. The coalition backs most home-school legislation.
"Parents have been teaching their children how to drive ever since there were automobiles," he said. "It's how I learned."
And that's precisely the problem for some lawmakers.
"This legislation has me very concerned," said Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield, who retired after 43 years as a driving instructor. "Just because you know how to drive doesn't mean you are a good teacher. ... especially if you're teaching them your bad habits."
New drivers still would have to take a Department of Motor Vehicles test to get a state driver's license if the bill becomes law, but how many people might take the learn-at-home option is difficult to determine.
The Iowa Department of Education estimates that about 5 percent of the state's school-age children are home-schooled, which would be about 23,674, according to the latest enrollment figures. But that is only an educated guess because the department does not track home-school statistics.
"We don't collect because the legislation mandates that the information go to the districts of residence," Carol Greta, legal counsel for the department, wrote in an e-mail. "That's because, in the big scheme of things, it's the local district that is responsible for knowing where all children of compulsory attendance age (6-16 years) are attending school."
Local data shows that some school districts have seen slow, but steady growth in their home-school populations over the past 10 years while others have seen their numbers fall.
In Sioux City, for example, 118 students were home-schooled in the 2001-02 school year when district enrollment was at 14,396 students. This year, 125 students are home-schooled even as overall district enrollment dropped to 13,824.
Meanwhile, the Davenport School District has seen its home-school population decline at the same time its overall enrollment fell. This year, 168 students, or a number equal to about 1 percent of the district's 15,932 enrollment, were home-schooled, while 10 years ago, 215 students, or a number equal to 1.2 percent of the district's 17,377 enrollment, were home-schooled.
Judith White, a former principal at Davenport's McKinley Elementary School and now the director of St. Ambrose University's teacher education program, said there are several reasons why parents choose to home-school, ranging from religion or work schedules to being able to keep a closer eye on their child.
"Religious reasons are the most common, but there are others," she said. As a lifelong educator, White thinks that trained, certified teachers still make the best educators, but, she added, "the proof is out there that some children do very well in the home-school environment."
A driver's license
But does that mean parents should also be driving instructors? In 2004, both the House and the Senate said "yes." They passed home-school driver's education legislation that's almost identical to what's moving through the House now, but then-Gov. Tom Vilsack vetoed it. According to news reports from the time, the governor thought it created a possible "inconsistency in training."
Hanson, like all driving teachers in Iowa, had to get an endorsement after taking a certified course to become a driving instructor. It is a requirement not made of parents in the legislation.
"Who has a bigger motivation than I do to make sure that my children are safe drivers?" asked Bill Gustoff, a Des Moines lawyer who does pro bono work on behalf of home-school groups and has helped lead the lobbying effort on the driver's education bill. One of his law partners, Rep. Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, is the bill's main sponsor.
Gustoff said the legislation actually is stricter than current law in some places. For example, existing law requires 30 hours of classroom instruction, the same as what would be required of home-schooled driving students. But where current law requires 20 hours of highway time, the legislation mandates 40 hours of home-schooled students. And, he said, the driving curriculum has to be approved by the Iowa Department of Transportation before it can be used.
The department, incidentally, has not taken a position on the bill. Neither have law enforcement groups nor the insurance lobby. One group that has is the Iowa Education Association.
"It comes down to public safety," said Mary Jane Cobb, the association's executive director.
She said having a teacher who has not gone through a training program and who likely would teach a driver's education class a few times in their life, as opposed an instructor who has gone through the courses and taught the class dozens, if not hundreds of times, does not make sense.
"There's just a lot more to it than someone might realize at first," she said. "That's why we're going to keep advocating."