In 2010, Gov. Rick Perry had this message for Texas teens: If you want to keep your driver's license, you should have to stay in school.
"I believe that in order for high school-aged individuals to get and keep a driver's license, they should be enrolled in school, be it bricks and mortar or our virtual high school, and, most importantly, working toward their diploma or GED," Perry said in a Jan. 27, 2010, press release.
Perry "called on" the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Department of Public Safety to work with school districts "to further leverage the privilege of a driver's license as an incentive to keep students engaged in the education process."
At the time, state law already required anyone younger than 18 seeking a driver's license to prove that he or she had attended school for at least 80 days in the semester preceding the application date or had been enrolled for at least 45 days in a GED program. The Legislature passed that mandate into law in 1989.
In August 2010, Perry's re-election campaign told us that the governor's new proposal was not redundant because it was focused on students who drop out after getting their driver's licenses. Under Perry"s plan, the education agency would alert DPS when a student drops out and DPS would then revoke the teenager"s license.
"High school students should not be able to have the privilege of driving if they are not enrolled in school," said Catherine Frazier, then a spokeswoman for Perry's re-election campaign.
This July, after the 2011 Legislature had wrapped up its regular and special sessions, we asked the governor's office about the status of Perry's promise to require students to be in school or working on a GED to keep their driver's license.
By email, Frazier, now the governor's deputy press secretary, pointed to legislation by Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, saying that House Bill 2466 creates a framework within which the education agency and DPS "can work to implement this policy." She continued: "The governor"s office will work with both agencies to ensure that this program is implemented in a way that protects sensitive student information."
We took a closer look at HB 2466, which Perry signed into law June 17.
As originally filed, the bill contained a provision requiring DPS to revoke the driver's license of anyone younger than 18 if a parent or guardian has notified the department that the student has been absent from school for 10 straight days or if a school administrator or law enforcement officer has informed DPS that the student has been absent 20 days.
However, the Texas Senate stripped the legislation of that provision May 24 when it approved an amendment by Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy. "I think there are a lot of potential situations to where there could be some problems with that section of the bill," Hegar said while introducing his amendment. One example, he told colleagues, is if a teenager has to miss school because of a sick parent.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, also expressed concerns about the proposal, saying that he feared the "unintended consequences" of such a policy. "I hope we are not authorizing DPS to start intervening in truancy and use that as leverage on whether they give a license or not," Whitmire said. "It's very possible that someone is truant for some unfortunate reasons, and they might still need their automobile to support their family."
One truancy-related provision survived in HB 2466. Minors seeking a license must provide DPS with written permission from a parent or guardian allowing school administrators or law enforcement to notify DPS in the event that the student has been absent from school for at least 20 consecutive days.
DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman for the education agency, told us that this change "provides one more tool that school districts can use to help keep students in school." She said that before HB 2466 was passed, federal privacy laws kept school officials from sharing student records with DPS. She said the state"s new parental permission requirement resolves that issue.
We wondered if the new law then enables DPS to implement Perry"s proposal and begin revoking the driver's licenses of students who have stopped going to school.
Phillips told us in an interview that he thinks the governor's goal can now be fulfilled even though the Senate stripped out the provision in the legislation mandating the revocations by DPS. Lawmakers, he said, have "given consent so that the schools and DPS can communicate together, and I think that hopefully they will be able to put rules in place to implement what we want." For a definitive answer, he told us to talk with DPS.
Agency spokesman Tom Vinger said in an email that if DPS is notified about a student who has been absent from school, as described in HB 2466, the department doesn't have the authority to revoke the student's license.
Vinger also said that DPS doesn't interpret the new law as allowing it to create rules, as Phillips suggested, that would empower it to start doing so.
But Vinger noted that since at least 1996, DPS has had the power to suspend driver"s licenses of teens in truancy cases when ordered by a court. According to Vinger, DPS suspended 2,168 teen licenses in truancy cases in fiscal 2010.
For another take on this promise, we talked with Ryan Kellus Turner, general counsel for the Texas Municipal Courts Education Center, which provides continuing education classes to municipal judges. The center's July analysis of HB 2466 states that "after the Senate"s modification, the bill contains very little substance."
Turner told us he thinks the changes in law do not allow DPS to revoke the driver's licenses of teenagers after being notified by school or law enforcement officials that they have been absent from school.
Hegar told us in an email that his amendment was intended "to remove the authority for DPS to revoke or deny issuance of a driver license of a student absent from school for a given number of days."
We shared our research findings with Perry's office. In an email, Frazier said: "Gov. Perry worked hard with lawmakers to implement a measure to utilize the privilege of driving as an incentive for kids to stay in school. What was accomplished this session is a step in the right direction based on what (Perry) proposed last year and an achievement to be proud of."
So, where does that leave Perry"s promise?
This year"s change in law may have moved Texas closer to having a system in which minors lose their driver's licenses when they drop out of school, but it didn't meet the goal Perry set during his campaign.
We rate this Promise Broken.