LA Times Opinion Piece-Financial Literacy Should Be Taught in High School

Financial literacy is just as necessary as math, science

Teens should learn about money management. But do lawmakers really need to mandate a course?

CALIFORNIA LAWMAKERS are considering requiring that students take a financial literacy course in high school in order to graduate. (Elise Amendola Associated Press) 

Adulting is hard , and it’s gotten much harder even for mature adults. That’s especially true when it comes to personal finances.
We are subjected to more sophisticated and sometimes downright insidious online marketing that often uses influencers instead of ads. The investing world has grown more complicated, with investment apps, digital brokers and cryptocurrency. Hard-to-spot scams come to us every day via social media, emails and text.

We buy more of our goods online, sight unseen, and take the risk that our personal data might be compromised. Fewer employers provide traditional pensions; instead, it’s up to employees to figure out how much to put away for retirement, where the money should be stowed and how it should be managed.

Many colleges are downright unaffordable , but the financial aid process makes doing taxes seem easy by comparison, and lenders beckon with federally guaranteed loans that have put far too many young Americans into serious debt. As the gig economy becomes a bigger slice of the employment picture, it shifts the burden of healthcare and calculating tax deductions on to workers, and makes getting a mortgage, buying a home and creating stability more difficult.
Clearly, young adults need to be better equipped to tangle with the modern world of money.

That’s why there’s been growing interest in teaching financial literacy in high school, the point at which students are old enough to understand the topic and find it relevant as they apply to college and prepare to enter the working world.

According to Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit that promotes financial literacy instruction and provides free curriculum and teacher training, half of all states have passed a requirement for a one-semester course. And more states require financial education to be taught as part of other courses, such as math or economics.

California isn’t among the states that require teens to take a designated financial literacy course, at least not yet. A bill before the Legislature this year would mandate a course for public schools. Silicon Valley businessman Tim Ranzetta, co-founder of Next Gen Personal Finance, has gathered signatures for a ballot measure to do the same; he says he would withdraw the measure if the bill becomes law.

The concept is great. But turning it into reality isn’t as simple as proponents would have us think.

David Tokofsky, a former member of the Los Angeles Unified school board, told The Times that if the state is going to add new high school requirements, it also has to take some things out. Otherwise, there will be practically no time for high school students to pursue electives that most interest them. It’s a good point.

The state recently added a one-semester ethnic studies course to its requirements. How many more courses can be fit into the school day?

Adding new coursework should be undertaken only with a more comprehensive look at California’s curriculum standards, with the involvement of teachers and administrators. Educators should look for possible areas of overlap and repetition. That might make room for a couple of high school courses to be moved to eighth grade, though it would require the involvement of the University of California to ensure those courses would be accepted as part of the A-G curriculum.

The worst scenario would be a ballot initiative, no matter how well-intentioned. There is too little flexibility in such initiatives to meet changing needs of students and schools.

Mandates from Sacramento have generally not proved to be the best way to improve education, unless they are undertaken with the involvement of the people who have to carry them out. Let’s teach our high school students the complications of personal finance, but let’s do it thoughtfully, with the bigger picture in mind.