May 20, 2011

As we slowly regain our footing following the collapse of our housing and financial markets, there is plenty of blame to be shared — from predatory lenders and reckless Wall Street financiers to a failed federal regulatory framework. However, we must recognize the fact that far too many people lacked an understanding of the fundamental principles of personal finance and purchased financial products that they didn’t fully understand, made financial commitments that they couldn’t afford, often to buy things that they really didn’t need.

In response, several state and local school systems have taken steps to include meaningful financial literacy education in public schools, ensuring that their children will be better equipped to make the financial decisions that will shape their future. Recently, Virginia joined this group by becoming the fourth state in the nation to require high school students to complete a stand-alone course in financial literacy to graduate. I believe that Virginia’s Board of Education, as well as Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and the state’s General Assembly, should be commended for taking timely action to implement this important consumer protection and financial security initiative.

Unfortunately, Maryland — home to the finest public school system in the nation, according to Education Week and other observers — has stubbornly resisted similar efforts. For the past two years, a statewide, bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, students, teachers, business leaders and consumer protection advocates has pushed for a required course in financial education. The diversity and passion of this grass-roots coalition reflect both the urgency of the need and the dire consequences of inaction.

Unfortunately, a small number of bureaucrats at the State Department of Education have used blatant misinformation to prevent passage of this bill by the General Assembly. For example, they have argued that it is prohibitively costly and have purposefully inflated the cost estimates of implementation — a time-honored Annapolis game — even though three Maryland counties have already established successful financial literacy course requirements at minimal cost.

As you read this, another crop of high school graduates is about to receive diplomas and will be moving on to higher education or the job market. Regardless of these graduates’ destination, they will be forced to make financial decisions that will affect their ability to secure good-paying jobs, provide for their families and save for the future. Due to bureaucratic inertia, far too many of these students will be making those choices without the proper training and will be vulnerable to financial predators, fine print and impulse decisions.

The status quo is no longer acceptable, and the time for bureaucratic games is over. The only question that should remain is when will Maryland join its neighbor, Virginia, in requiring a stand-alone financial literacy course as a prerequisite for high school graduation. For the sake of our children and their children, the financial education bill must be passed next year.

The writer is the comptroller of Maryland.

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