February 3, 2012

In recent months, financial literacy education has caught the attention of an increasing number of politicians and opinion leaders, who have suggested that such education become a requirement in our public schools. Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot has been among those leading the charge, noting the importance of understanding money, debt and budgeting.

We appreciate the spotlight that the comptroller is shining on this issue. The collapse of major banking institutions, the mortgage crisis and the many problems associated with mounting consumer debt have told us that personal finance education must be a part of our curriculum. Our schools need to place bedrock instruction in finance alongside reading, mathematics, social studies and science.

Here’s the good news, however: It is already taking place. Since the beginning of this academic year, Maryland’s school systems have been required to provide instruction in financial literacy for students in grades 3 through 12. This requirement offers a wonderful opportunity to teach children the importance of sound financial planning long before they are out on their own. The earlier children begin learning about how to manage money, the better off they will be as adults. The Maryland State Board of Education put this new requirement in place because children are in control of more money today than ever before, and they need to learn how to manage it wisely.

This has never been more important. Individuals who get into debt and carry high credit card balances will find themselves unable to rent apartments, buy homes or attain jobs requiring security clearances. In a state with many governmental, technical and professional jobs, students must be financially literate if they hope to thrive in the future.

Where we differ with the comptroller is on how personal finance should be taught. He advocates for a specific course on personal finance for high school students. While we fully support local school systems that decide to go that route, our belief is that local school officials and educators know best how to implement the financial literacy requirement for their students. There is no educational consensus on when best to offer this instruction, but most experts say children begin to develop their understanding of money long before high school. A state-mandated high school course could mean that important instructional time in financial literacy would be lost in the early grades, while upper-level instructional time in other areas important to the student’s growth would be overrun by a new course requirement.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has come out in favor of educating our students about personal finance at an early age. “I always think you have to start young,” he said last month, addressing the Advisory Council on Financial Capability. “So, if this is just one course, half a semester [or] a semester senior year, [it’s] definitely late in the game.”

In the wake of our recent fiscal tragedies, we have an historic opportunity. There is now little dispute that education in economic matters is important for all students. Schools — along with parents whose role in financial education is critical — can help make certain a new generation of Americans understand the importance of managing money responsibly. Maryland schools are already hard at work doing just that.

James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., and Charlene M. Dukes are president and vice president, respectively, of the Maryland State Board of Education. Bernard J. Sadusky is the Interim State Superintendent of Schools.