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Show me the money: Florida prepares to offer a new high school class in personal finance

Florida lawmakers this spring took a step toward fulfilling a need that many high school students have long recognized. They approved HB 7071, a bill that would, among other things, require Florida high schools to offer a semester-long elective course focused on financial literacy, starting in the fall. It awaits the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis. [Associated Press]
Florida lawmakers this spring took a step toward fulfilling a need that many high school students have long recognized. They approved HB 7071, a bill that would, among other things, require Florida high schools to offer a semester-long elective course focused on financial literacy, starting in the fall. It awaits the signature of Gov. Ron DeSantis. [Associated Press]
Published May 31, 2019

Simone Billington found plenty of value in the 12-day section of her economics class that focused on financial literacy.

She learned to plan a budget and prepare for unexpected expenses.

Still, the Wiregrass Ranch High graduating senior wanted more. She said she could have used an in-depth course on practical finances, such as how to avoid scams and maintain strong credit.

"As a future college student, I need to know that," Billington said. "Once I move out, I'm not going to need to know the Pythagorean theorem. I will need to know how to file my taxes."

After six years of push and pull, Florida lawmakers this spring took a step toward fulfilling a need that Billington and many other high school students have long recognized.

They approved a bill (HB 7071) that would, among other things, require Florida high schools to offer a semester-long elective course focused on financial literacy, starting in the fall.

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The mandate, which Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign into law — he's included the bill in his list of legislative accomplishments — is a far cry from the graduation requirement that advocates sought.

And with a quick turnaround time to make it available to students by August, many districts will need to scramble.

But few wanted to completely criticize the compromise.

"We are looking at this as a glass half-full situation," said Suzanne Costanza, executive director of the Florida Council on Economic Education, which lobbied hard for the course to count toward graduation.

The personal financial literacy course has appeared on the state's approved course directory since 2015, as a social studies elective with 88 academic standards attached.

Yet few school districts have offered it. Pinellas County schools, for instance, determined the economics course with a financial literacy component would suffice.

Providing a stand-alone credit-bearing class will allow students to receive a more fully developed and robust curriculum, Costanza said, rather than cramming the information in between lessons on deficit spending and supply and demand.

Although the bill does not spell out what the course should contain, it's expected that districts will include instruction on everything from personal banking, to loans, to long-range financial planning.

"This is going to be such an important course," Costanza said.

Once it gets off the ground, that is. By this fall, that's a tough goal to meet.

Most high schools will have let out for summer break before DeSantis receives the proposal for his consideration. That means all students already will have completed their course schedule selections for their next academic year, and schools will have hired teachers based on those requests.

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The best some principals expected to do was to offer the elective to teens with scheduling conflicts, and even then, it most likely would be an online course — if the Department of Education allows that option instead of expecting every school to offer a "bricks and mortar" class.

Because the course already exists, and it's available online, Pinellas schools are ready to comply, district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf-Chason said. Teacher training over the summer should help schools meet the state goals, added Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County schools, which face the same set of challenges.

The bill language appears to offer some leeway. It states that, starting in the fall, "all school districts must offer a financial literacy course consisting of at least one-half credit as an elective."

Joanne Glenn, principal of Pasco eSchool, said her school regularly has offered the online version, and it would remain an option for every student who wishes to enroll.

But even her virtual operation would have to gear up if interest surges.

"It's not one of our most popular courses," Glenn said.

Her biggest concern centered on whether the state would change the curriculum requirements of the elective as it sets rules for the anticipated new law.

Tim Ranzetta, founder of California-based nonprofit Next Gen Personal Finance, has kept a close eye on Florida's lengthy effort to get more students to learn financial literacy.

The course is necessary to prepare teens for life after high school, Ranzetta said. So he worried that while the state ramps up the new elective offering, many students might lose out on the information that had been included in economics.

That's because the same bill that directs school districts to provide the elective also deletes the financial literacy material from the state's required economics course.

"They're going from a situation today where all students are getting one-third of a course to where every student has access to an elective," Ranzetta noted.

If not enough people sign up, he suggested, the needed lessons could fall by the wayside for seniors across Florida. Online options might help, he added, but they often are too passive to convey the magic of the material or to provide the peer-to-peer discussion that makes the information real.

"In business, they'd never do it this way," he said. "Implementation matters."

Bill sponsor Rep. Elizabeth Fetterhoff, R-DeLand, said via email that she'd still prefer the graduation requirement. The full Legislature didn't have the appetite to approve it, she acknowledged, but at least it agreed to move beyond the economics course, which she deemed inadequate.

Fetterhoff praised the availability of a "wonderful virtual course."

"I am excited that students now have a way to get real financial literacy education," she said.

Wiregrass Ranch High graduating senior Nathan Acio said lawmakers should not give up their drive to make the course a graduation requirement. He said he might have sacrificed his physics course, which he didn't expect to use again, to learn more about financial literacy.

"It's definitely something kids going out into the adult life need to know," Acio said. "And it's better learned in an academic setting, taught by a professional."

Classmate Jad Mouslle agreed.

Learning the information at home might not be an option, as parents might never have received good financial instruction themselves, he said. That could lead to generations of struggling, Mouslle said.

"If you make it a requirement, whether you like it or not, you're going to be forced to learn it," he said. "We're going to have to use it."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

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The class

Many school district officials expect Florida's proposed financial literacy elective course to be the one already in the state course directory. Its goals include helping students become "wise, successful, and knowledgeable consumers, savers, investors, users of credit and money managers." Its content should include:

• Balancing a checkbook and managing a bank account

• Savings, investment and planning for retirement

• Understanding loans and borrowing money, including predatory lending and payday loans

• Understanding interest, credit card debt and online commerce

• How to prevent identify fraud and theft

• Rights and responsibilities of renting or buying a home

• Understanding and planning for major financial purchases

Source: CPALMS (Florida's official source for standards information and course descriptions.)

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