A few years ago my husband and I hired a young man for a landscaping job. One day, the young man asked me if I remembered him.
I didn’t recognize him at first, but eventually his story came back to me. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and he had lived in poverty for all of his adolescence. During high school, he worked at McDonald’s, and he was often absent. At the time he was enrolled in my class, I wasn’t sure I was making a big impact on his life, try as I did.
The next moment was one of the proudest in my career. He had tears in his eyes as he shared how my class had changed his life. He had just purchased his first home after saving for a down payment. He was building an investment portfolio for retirement. He was showing his younger half-brother how to follow in his footsteps and secure his own financial future.
A few weeks ago another former student—a recent university grad who had grown up in completely different circumstances—wrote me a thank-you note. He was excited to tell me that what he learned in my class was helping him make the most of the good income he was earning with his new degree.
I’m a secondary math teacher, but the course these young people are referring to is personal finance. This course inspires students from all walks of life to build positive financial habits, strengthen their relationships, pursue successful careers, invest for the long-term and more. It is the most real-world relevant course a young person can take today.
At my previous school district, personal finance was an elective with a growing waitlist. I tried for years to promote the need for a full-semester personal-finance class for all students. However, time and time again, district administrators told me, “not this year,” or, “who will teach it?”
Fed up with shortsighted bureaucracy standing in the way of student learning, last spring I left and began teaching at a high-poverty alternative high school where many students live in foster care or in homes with parents with substance abuse issues.
My first personal-finance class at my new school exploded with interest and enthusiasm. A local credit union is working with my students to open checking and savings accounts. This year my students have already saved more than $3,000 in their collective accounts and will file taxes this winter. Several students are now planning to attend college.
This class is inspiring hope, engaging all students, and helping those less privileged kids to set and achieve ambitious goals. My principal supports the need for all students to take a full-year course. We’re currently finalizing a new personal-finance graduation requirement for all students at our school. It should not be an elective, or embedded in another course as an afterthought. It should be a stand-alone course that all students take before graduation.
Washington has a long way to go if we are to realize this dream. According to Next Gen Personal Finance, a national nonprofit organization focused on financial education, only 5% of Washington high schoolers are guaranteed this course prior to graduation.
But it’s not impossible. My school will become the 15th to require it, and more than 65% of Washington high school students have access to an elective. This means there are teachers throughout our state who can handle a mandated course.
Curriculum and professional development for teachers is free, and we know from studies that the subject improves student knowledge and behaviors — they manage money much more effectively.
There are three bills recently introduced into the House and Senate that support student access to personal-finance education and encourage appointing education staff to teach courses.
To improve financial literacy in our state, I urge residents to endorse HB 1938, and SB 5824 and SB 5720. Locally, ask your school board members, district curriculum supervisors and principals about their approach to financial education.
We literally cannot afford to take no for an answer on this issue.