Catherine McEwen vividly recalls when she and her fellow federal bankruptcy court judges first started pushing for personal finance classes in Florida high schools.
“That was a long, long time ago, in 2007,” said McEwen, who serves in the Middle District of Florida, based in Tampa.
Their efforts to lobby school officials gained little traction at the time. But it became the start of a movement, as lawyers and jurists who deal with Floridians’ financial woes saw a clear need for better education on money matters.
“Think about how many kids we could have instilled (with) good money management habits,” McEwen said. “Think about how much more successful they could have been in handling their money if they had gotten those basic skills.”
Instead, Florida led most of the nation in bankruptcy filings. For 2021, the Middle District of Florida ranked second nationally of 90 districts, while the Southern District of Florida came in at sixth.
“You can see that Floridians, generally speaking, are not financially literate,” said McEwen, who sits on the Credit Abuse Resistance Education advisory board. “We would like the folks in Florida to be educated to the extent that we don’t have a job anymore.”
She and others celebrated the passage of legislation (SB 1054) requiring a one-semester financial literacy course for high school graduation. They had tried without success to get such a mandate passed since 2013, six years after first broaching the topic with the Department of Education and a year after the state agreed to include the principles in economics curriculum.
Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law days before the start of National Financial Literacy Month.
“I’m just so excited about it,” said Tampa bankruptcy attorney Stephanie Lieb, legislative chairperson for the business law section of the Florida Bar.
The business law section of the Bar joined with the bankruptcy judges and other groups in 2013 to press for the standalone course in Florida’s high schools. Lieb and McEwen said they could see that independent efforts they and others attempted, such as leading hourlong courses on personal finance in schools that welcomed them, did not meet the need.
They would cover the basics, Lieb said. But students clearly wanted more.
“The questions you would get from the kids made you realize they really need to know these things,” she said. “They’re going to go to a college campus and get offered an extra-large T-shirt to take a credit card.”
Understanding things such as debt and credit, checking and interest is critical to their survival, she contended.
“A full half-credit is really a game changer, especially when it’s required,” Lieb said, noting that some schools resisted the course because it would take away from fulfilling other academic mandates. “It’s got the potential to break the cycle of poverty in some families. Kids who might never (otherwise) get this education, will.”
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Concerns that students would lose access to one of their elective courses contributed to the string of defeats that the bill received over the years. The bill’s primary booster, for whom the measure is named, argued that shouldn’t be a factor.
“We are expecting these young people to go out. They’re going to be faced with these decisions immediately,” state Sen. Dorothy Hukill said when sponsoring the bill in 2018. “If you get bad credit, it’s not something that’s going to go away in a month.”
Hukill died the following year.
Many students agreed with her on the urgent need for financial literacy.
Even so, it took another few years for the concept to stick. It came closer in 2019, when DeSantis signed legislation that required schools to offer the course as an elective — a compromise that supporters viewed as progress, but not enough.
They kept plugging away. And this year, the Legislature pushed the bill through with unanimous votes in both chambers.
“It’s a lesson in, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” Lieb said.
McEwen sent a letter to DeSantis urging him to sign the bill. In it, she wrote that she wanted to make her job obsolete, and to reduce her court’s “awful ranking” of bankruptcies nationally.
The fact that the law took a decade to come to fruition, she said, is now in the past: “We are happy, happy, happy that it didn’t run out of time, and they made the right choice and passed the bill this year.”
The requirement takes effect with ninth graders who enter high school in 2023.
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