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California could require kids to learn how to manage money. Should voters decide curriculum?

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School curriculum is usually the purview of education experts, but this fall it could be decided by California voters, who will vote on adding a new requirement for high school students: a one-semester class in managing personal finances.

California’s Secretary of State is poised to certify that the California Personal Finance Act is eligible for the November ballot, which would add financial literacy to the list of high school graduation requirements beginning with the class of 2030.

Students would learn about paying for college, online banking, taxes, budgeting, credit, retirement accounts, loans, how the stock market works and other topics. The issue is critical, organizers said, as students face a shifting economy and difficult decisions about college, careers and their futures.

“No one comes out of the womb knowing how to manage their credit score. It has to be taught,” said Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of a personal finance education nonprofit and a chief backer of the initiative. “And right now there’s a dramatic gap between what students know and what they need to know. We have to change that.”

Voters seem to agree with him. A 2022 survey of adults nationwide showed that nearly 90% support a financial literacy requirement in high school, and nearly as many wished they had taken such a course when they were students. 

That’s not surprising, considering the financial woes many people incur. The average credit card debt in California is $8,366, the sixth-highest rate in the country, and 1 in 6 borrowers nationwide are in default on their student loans

Financial literacy already in classrooms

But some education experts have pushed back, not because they’re opposed to financial literacy for students but because they question whether voters are best equipped to dictate what’s taught in classrooms.

Currently, the state’s History-Social Studies framework includes a one-semester course in economics, required for graduation, that covers much of the same material proposed by the financial literacy ballot initiative proponents. Financial literacy is also included in first, second and ninth grade curriculum. First graders, for example, learn that money can be exchanged for goods and services, and people make decisions about how to spend their money.

But Ranzetta said the curriculum, which was last updated in 2017, doesn’t focus enough on financial literacy. Personal finance is covered for only a few weeks in the economics course; the rest covers more abstract economic concepts like international trade, resource allocation and the benefits and drawbacks of capitalism. Individual teachers can choose how much they want to focus on certain topics.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond wouldn’t answer questions about the ballot initiative, although he endorsed it. Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, also wouldn’t answer questions. 

Leaving curriculum decisions to voters is ‘a bad idea’

The proposed ballot initiative so far has almost zero opposition, but some are questioning the idea of letting voters — and not education experts — decide what students learn in the classroom. Ordinarily, curriculum in California is developed by a group of teachers and subject-matter professionals who serve on the Instructional Quality Commission, which meets publicly six times a year. New curriculum is subject to multiple reviews, edits and public vetting, ultimately going before the State Board of Education for adoption. Local school boards can adjust curriculum according to the needs of their students.  

“Most voters don’t know much about education policy, and having them decide what can be taught in schools is a bad idea,” said Morgan Polikoff, an education professor at the University of Southern California. “We already have a process in place for adopting curriculum, and if people are unhappy with it there are plenty of avenues to have their voices heard — they can go to meetings, they can vote people out of office, they can talk to their representatives.”

Polikoff worries that adopting curriculum through ballot initiatives could set a dangerous precedent. Religious or anti-LGBTQ curriculum, for example, could be approved by voters, setting up costly and lengthy legal showdowns with the state Department of Education. 

Curriculum can be complicated, as well. When writing new curricula, the Instructional Quality Commission looks at the broader context, making sure students get new material every year that builds on what they learned previously, subjects don’t overlap and topics are flexible enough for teachers to adapt lessons to the individual needs of their students. Textbooks and tests are also taken into consideration. 

Legislature weighs in

Most curriculum updates and changes originate with the commission, but sometimes the Legislature weighs in. The state’s new ethnic studies and media literacy requirements, for example, stemmed from Assembly bills. Another bill, AB 2097, would add computer science as a graduation requirement.

AB 2927, a financial literacy bill proposed by Democrat Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, would actually do almost the same thing as the ballot initiative. The bill would require financial literacy as a graduation requirement, although it would go into effect until 2031, a year later than the ballot measure.

Bruce Fuller, education professor at UC Berkeley, said he worries about the increasing politicization of curriculum — either from the Legislature or those pushing for ballot initiatives.

“We have these political interests unabashedly trying to control what’s taught in the classroom, instead of leaving it up to teachers and locally elected school boards,” Fuller said. “We should trust those folks to devise thoughtful curriculum that’s appropriate for their students.”

He also questioned the ever-growing list of graduation requirements. High schools only offer six or seven class periods a day, and with more required classes there’s less room for art and other electives. Some districts have started adding an extra period so students can fit in all the classes they need to take to graduate, finish a career pathway and qualify for California’s public universities. 

“I’m not sure how adding more required classes is going to motivate restless teenagers,” Fuller said. “With more requirements, we’re giving them almost no chance to study things they’re actually interested in.” 

McCarty’s bill  is not the Legislature’s first attempt to wade into financial literacy. A dozen bills requiring financial literacy have died or been vetoed in recent years, in most cases because financial literacy curriculum already exists and the state already has a system for adopting curriculum.

As Gov. Jerry Brown wrote in 2018 when he vetoed a bill that would have made financial literacy materials available to teachers: “This bill is unnecessary. The History-Social Science Framework already contains financial literacy content for pupils in kindergarten through grade 12, as well as a financial literacy elective.”

Ranzetta said the Legislature’s inability to pass a financial literacy curriculum is what spurred him to take the matter directly to voters.

“I recognize the value of the process, but it’s slow and so far it hasn’t worked in California,” he said. “The issue is too urgent and too popular to wait any longer.”     

Ranzetta grew up in New Jersey, where his father was a banker and his mother was a community volunteer who raised six children. He learned financial literacy from his parents, and assumed other young people did, too. It wasn’t until he started volunteering at an East Palo Alto high school that he realized many students are clueless about money, and that ignorance can hamper them throughout their lives. But they were eager to learn, he said, and share the information with their parents.

That experience inspired him to start NextGen Personal Finance, which offers free financial literacy curriculum and training for teachers. At least 7,000 teachers in California and more than 100,000 nationwide have participated, he said.

A class that demystfies money

The main entrance of Berkeley High School in Berkeley on May 1, 2024. Photo by Laure Andrillon for CalMatters

At Berkeley High, Crystal Rigley Janis teaches two economics classes and three personal finance classes, covering topics she wishes she knew as a young person: how to negotiate a salary, not relying on gut instinct when investing, and avoiding individual stocks in favor of index funds.

“It took me 15 years to understand those things, and it probably cost me millions of dollars,” said Rigley, who worked for several years at a wealth management firm before going into teaching. “I don’t want other people to make the mistakes I did.”

Eliza Maier, a senior, was so inspired by Rigley’s class that she opened a Roth IRA when she turned 18 and transferred money from her low-interest savings account. The class, she said, helped demystify money and the role it can play in major life choices.

“We learned that money isn’t good or bad – it’s a tool,” Maier said. “It can help you realize your goals. It can help you be prepared for whatever happens in your life. I didn’t know anything about money when I started taking this class, but I think it’s so important, especially for high school students.”

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