Payoff of cash class is debated

Board weighs financial literacy as a new graduation requirement


Carroll County's school board members largely support teaching financial literacy to teens, but some question a proposal to make it a graduation requirement.

Citing statistics that indicate many students are graduating without basic knowledge of money management, local school officials, including Superintendent Charles I. Ecker, want to require students starting ninth grade in 2007 to pass a half-credit financial literacy course to graduate.

But school board members, who said they see the value of teaching teens about financial matters, pondered the merits of the proposed requirement during last week's board meeting.

"We need to make sure we understand what we're trying to require," said board president Thomas G. Hiltz. "Are we requiring [students] to take the course, or are we requiring [them] to have the knowledge?"

He said board members should consider whether current required courses are covering financial literacy concepts.

The board also should contemplate eliminating some other requirement if this one is added, he said in an interview last week.

Hiltz suggested alternatives to having students use classroom time to fulfill the requirement, such as allowing them to take the course online or earn course credit by passing a test that would measure their financial literacy.

"I think there [are] important life skills that our students need to be successful," he said.

But, Hiltz said, a distinction should be drawn between having a class that is intended to teach students something and one that is aimed at changing their behavior.

Many people know about the consequences of poor money management, but continue to make bad financial decisions, he said.

"The behavior is one thing that's more difficult to change," Hiltz said.

Two years ago, when school officials made a similar suggestion, the board voted it down.

If the proposal wins board approval this time around, Carroll would join a handful of other Maryland systems -- including Baltimore, Harford, St. Mary's and Talbot counties -- with a similar requirement.

Nationally, 14 states, including Virginia, require a financial literacy course to graduate. Maryland and the District of Columbia don't have such a requirement.

"Kids are not learning about financial responsibility," said Ecker, who added that 80 percent of parents think schools are providing money management and budget classes. "The students need it. They're not getting it at home."

But board member Cynthia L. Foley questioned the potential to make a lasting impression on students' financial attitudes with a half-credit course.

"It's such a short period of time and nothing to reinforce it," she said. "By the time they're 20, they won't even remember."

Foley suggested incorporating financial literacy lessons into students' advisory periods because teens have those sessions throughout high school.

"Not only would you be reinforcing it over four years ... it wouldn't be something that they would lose," she said. "It would be a constant reminder."

Steven Johnson, the school system's director of curriculum and instruction, reassured board members that the course material, because of its "real-life applications," is something that students retain.

"Quite frankly, those are the lessons that stick with students," he said.

While many school districts, including Carroll, offer financial literacy courses as an elective, only about 10 percent of students in those systems take advantage of them, according to Allen Cox, managing director of the Maryland Coalition for Financial Literacy.

Cox -- who met with Carroll school officials and at least one board member, C. Scott Stone, last fall -- said that trusting students to choose a financial literacy course on their own hasn't been effective and that is why the coalition supports making it a graduation requirement.

"There are a lot of financial literacy needs that are generally not addressed by parents," said Cox, who added that in a 2004 poll college administrators indicated that "excessive credit card debt" was the primary reason students dropped out. The secondary reason was low grades.

He said many school systems have begun encouraging students to take it as an elective, but stop short of mandating it.

Some parents in Carroll have complained about the prospect of an additional graduation requirement and having to fit it into students' already packed school schedules, Johnson said.

The board's student representative, Maggie McEvoy, asked board members to delay making a decision until October, to give her time to gauge students' opinion about the proposal to make the course a graduation requirement.

"It's a big change," McEvoy said. "I am, however, really in favor. It is something really important, especially in today's culture."

Board vice president Gary W. Bauer, who opposed the idea two years ago, said his daughter took a financial course at a trade school. If trade schools are teaching financial literacy, so should high schools, he said.

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