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Reading, writing and bank accounts: Should Florida require a high school course on money matters?

By Jeffrey S. Solochek
A proposal in the Florida Senate that would establish a half-credit high school course on personal finance now has support in the House. It's the first time the idea, which has been around in the Legislature for several years, has gotten this much traction. Many students local interviewed say they like the idea. [iStockphoto.com]

Sophia Lam is not ashamed to admit it.

Sheís approaching her high school graduation, with college loans, tax payments, credit cards and more in the offing. Yet sheís not sure how to deal with that financial reality.

"Weíre preparing for the start of life and being an adult," said Lam, a Brandon High School senior. "Right now Iím clueless. I donít know anything."

She and others in her macroeconomics course said theyíd welcome a course dedicated to teaching them about personal finances, rather than the couple of lessons they now get. State Sen. Dorothy Hukill would love to help.

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Hukill, a Port Orange Republican, has been pushing to get this information into teensí hands for five years. Her bill would remove the financial literacy material currently in the stateís basic economics course, and create a separate half-credit course that students would have to pass in order to graduate.

The requirement would replace one elective, so students still need to complete only 24 credits to earn their diploma. To Hukill, itís a no-brainer.

"We are expecting these young people to go out. Theyíre going to be faced with these decisions immediately," she said. "If you get bad credit, itís not something thatís going to go away in a month."

The Senate passed the proposal yet again in the first week of session. The House, which did not act on the idea in 2017, has moved its own version this session, giving it a better chance than at any time in the past.

Tampa Bay area students said they would advise lawmakers to take the plunge.

"I do believe that kids are itching to learn it," said Porcia Boateng, a senior at Wiregrass Ranch High School. "Itís important to learn independence right now."

Jackson Trudel, one of Boatengís classmates, offered his own specific situation as an example of why such a course should exist.

He wants to get a degree in computer sciences, but found that means so much more than just applying to college. He needed to know which specialty fields in his subject create the best job opportunities, and which universities offer the highest return on investment, not to mention information on types of loans and how to repay them. Trudel sought out the resources to guide his decisions on his own.

"That knowledge helped me," he said, suggesting that a personal finance requirement could easily take the place of another less important course. "We take a lot of electives at this school. If I had to sacrifice any of my classes, it would not be economics or finance."

But should it be a requirement? Thatís where opinion starts to diverge.

Brandon High senior Marcus Vega sees value in that idea.

"If it was a graduation requirement and not an elective, I feel it would be taken more seriously" by students who take the course and educators who create the curriculum, he said.

Leaving it up to chance is not the best plan, Vega added.

"If you learn how to just do it in life, youíre probably going to learn it the hard way," he said.

Assistant principal Rashad Woods said he sees plenty of students Brandon High who take that path. They get jobs as soon as they can, he said, often to help pay for their cars, insurance, sometimes even food.

"I think they get the blue collar nature of how work makes money," Woods said.

But when it comes to understanding ATM fees, checkbook balancing and other aspects that play into your credit rating, he said, "I donít think they get that part. Ö Itís what you do with your money. Financial literacy, it is important."

Even so, some students did not see forcing the issue as the way to go.

"I feel that a semester class that really is down to earth about personal finance is the same kind of luxury that driverís education is ó not required, but important for adult life," said Brandon High senior Brandon Benenati.

Benenati said his band and ROTC courses take up the electives that he gets to choose, and he does not want to give up either. He figured he would learn the critical money lessons in time, the way people who donít take driverís ed eventually learn to drive.

Wiregrass Ranch senior Anjalie Teter worried, though, that some parents will not or, even worse, cannot help their children with these important skills.

"Itís nice to have it here, where teachers can help you," she said, noting that some teens donít even know what questions to ask.

But they do ask, Wiregrass Ranch principal Robyn White said. Thatís why her school already has developed an optional program, which includes guest speakers such as bankers and loan officers, to provide "all the real-world type things that they were not getting in class."

Brandon High senior Taylor Skiles, who has her own checking account, said she taught herself how to balance it, but would welcome more of that real-world information. She had a suggestion for which other requirement lawmakers might delete: The online course credit.

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"We are a digital society. We donít need a computer to teach us," Skiles said, receiving nods of agreement from her classmates. "We can figure it out. Having the online (requirement) is just a burden."

Hukill, the bill sponsor, has not proposed such a swap. She said students will have plenty of opportunities to take their electives either way, while still benefiting from these "serious" life skills.

"You get 24 credits. Thereís plenty of room for electives. Thereís still time for music, art and band," she said. The question is, "are we going to let the students suffer because their parents arenít teaching them?"

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.