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Legislator wants schools to tackle financial literacy

January 26, 2019

Several years out of high school, many people are surprised how often they use basic algebra. At the very least, those simple formulas are handy for calculating percentages or trying to figure out what “x” might be.

Geometry is another story. While scientific and technological fields require knowledge of geometry, few adults actually draw on those long-ago lessons on lines, angles and surfaces.

Still, anyone who has found themselves in a money bind might wish they’d taken a personal finance class in high school. They might very well have avoided the problems they now face.

That idea, in part, is what has driven 17 states to require students to take a course in personal finance. Arizona may not be far behind in joining those states, if Arizona State Senator Rep. Rusty Bowers is successful.

The Phoenix-area lawmaker from District 25 is sponsoring legislation -- HB 2354 – that would establish a required separate personal finance course for graduation from high school.

More specifically, the wording in Bowers’ proposal states: “The governing board may approve a financial literacy course that would fulfill a mathematics course required for graduation from high school.”

Bowers’ idea may come from the right place. Financial education can result in a greater likelihood of saving for retirement and reduce the amount of personal debt a person takes on. Certainly, being financially literate won’t guarantee future success, but the costs of being financially ignorant can be immense.

At Lake Havasu High School, a course in economics is offered, but only as an elective, said Kathy Cox. She is president of the Lake Havasu Unified School District’s governing board. Before she retired, Cox served as LHHS principal for seven years.

While Cox supports a personal finance class in theory, she sees financial trouble ahead for the school district if the legislation as it stands were to pass.

“The community and the high school have long supported a state requirement that all students must take a personal finance class in order to graduate. However, hiring additional teachers for the increased number of classes, as well as for the necessary textbooks, would be quite costly.

“I did not see in the proposed bill a provision for additional funding. If the state were to provide the funding, there is another obstacle. Several years ago, the state made Algebra 2 a graduation requirement. Prior to that, the state required only two years of math. With the new requirement, three years of math are now required to graduate — Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2,” Cox said.

Adding Algebra 2 spawned a new issue.

“We saw a large drop in the number of students taking Math of Money. I myself would prefer that one of those three math requirements be a personal finance course. We do offer higher level math courses, such as statistics and calculus, as electives. Algebra 2 could be part of that pathway for the students who need upper level math for their careers.

“The state, whether it’s our legislators, our Department of Ed, or the State Board of Education, needs to be aware that new legislation and edicts will have unintended and unwanted consequences. The fact that fewer students now take personal finance is a good example of that,” Cox said.

District Superintendent Diana Asseier said that while she appreciates allowing a financial literacy course to count as a math course, she doesn’t see how it could address financial literacy for Havasu students overall.

“The bigger issue I see is that many of our college-bound students are taking higher level math courses and do not get the ‘Math of Money’ class offered at the high school,” she said. “Yet they are often dealing with student loans and other issues that will create future debt. A financial literacy course, like our Math of Money, at any high school will have the same issue of not reaching all students, as their schedules may not allow them to take it.”

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