“As the recent financial crisis illustrates, consumers who can make informed decisions about financial products and services not only serve their own best interests, but, collectively, they also help promote broader economic stability,” Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week during a town hall meeting with local teachers.
Schools — and local governments — are taking note. Last year, Virginia was one of four states that began requiring high school students to take a one-semester financial planning course in order to graduate. Peter Franchot, comptroller of Maryland, has started an online petition drive calling for a similar program in Maryland. The District currently does not have any such requirements in place.
“There’s been a large movement to teach [financial literacy] in the school system, but it’s very, very new,” said Bobby Sanborn, president of the Financial Literacy Program at George Washington University. “It’s becoming more and more of a priority.”
Stefanie Weldon, a former attorney who teaches law at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, said she routinely incorporates economic concepts and principles in her classroom.
“Whenever I teach any legal concepts, economics is integral to my teaching,” Weldon said. “The economics of immigration, criminal law — do communities benefit from prisons? There are just a whole lot of ways to teach economic literacy, financial literacy.”
Ongoing budget cuts and staffing shortages have led many school districts to reach out to outside groups and volunteers to handle financial literacy
“The interest started even before the recession, but now that states are saying ‘we need to do this,’ school systems are increasingly looking to groups that are available to help,” said Steve Longley, vice president of development for the Junior Achievement of Greater Washington, which provides a series of programs aimed at students from kindergarten to 12th grade.
The lessons range from learning about banks (geared towards kindergartners) to managing stock portfolios, 401(k) plans and savings accounts (for high school students). Along the way, students learn about budgets, loans and credit cards.
“To be honest, most kids think [credit and debit cards] are little pieces of plastic that give you things for free,” Sanborn said. “We try to start with basic concepts like, ‘What is a community? Why do we pay taxes?’ and build off of that.”
Even so, it can be been difficult to work around decades-old curricula that doesn’t take financial planning programs into account, said Nick Jacobs, director of the Credit Abuse Resistance Education program, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that sends bankruptcy judges, attorneys and trustees into the classroom.
“The biggest challenge has been getting speaking opportunities,” Jacobs said. “A lot of states have standardized tests and set curriculums and so forth, so coming in and talking to students, even for an hour, has been difficult.”