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Kansas Tries Softer Approach to Getting Financial Literacy in Schools

Legislators are trying to revive the idea of teaching financial literacy in all public schools. Only this time, they're trying to do it without legislating it.

The chairmen of the Kansas House Education Committee and State Board of Education, both Republicans, sent a joint letter this week to local school board presidents and superintendents "urging public schools to teach financial literacy," according to the Associated Press.

They are hoping this approach—asking rather than mandating—will have more traction than last year's push to write it into law. That bill, introduced in February 2014, would have required that students pass a financial literacy course in order to graduate.

The House passed a version of that bill in March but it died in the Senate education committee. The state's budget department at the time had estimated the cost at $50,000.

This latest campaign by Kansas Rep. Ron Highland, from Wamego, and board of education member Jim McNiece, of Wichita, is not the first and certainly won't be the last time that we hear about efforts in various states to require financial literacy courses in high school.

Education Week wrote last year about Florida's adoption of financial literacy teaching standards. It became the first state in the country to adopt the Council for Economic Education's K-12 National Standards. Since then, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island have followed suit.

Financial experts have long advocated for the idea. After all, as we reported in last year's story, results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) revealed that more than 1 in 6 U.S. students did not reach baseline proficiency in financial literacy.

Despite that, a 2014 survey by the Council for Economic Education noted slow progress in the number of states that required students be tested on personal finance knowledge. It said 17 states at that time required students to take personal finance in order to graduate.

"We all know it's a serious problem," Rep. Highland told me in a phone interview Friday. "I think we have to do something to help educate them before they get out in the real world and get in trouble."

It seems like common sense to make sure a teenager can balance a checkbook before he takes on tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars in college debt or gets out in the "real world" where he must budget for groceries and make sure his rent check doesn't bounce.

The problem isn't that people hate the idea of financial literacy. The problem is often the nuts and bolts putting it into the curriculum.

When Kansas sought to write it into law last year there was pushback, Rep. Highland said. The main concerns were: 1) that it was too hard to implement and to decide which program to use;  2) that districts didn't want the state "stepping into their area. It was something they thought they should control," he said; and 3) that it was an unfunded mandate.

So this time, they're asking rather than forcing. Rep. Highland believes this approach, which was agreed upon by the House education commitee, will be more successful because it leaves it up to the districts to decide what works best in their schools.

"We said let's not dictate how it gets done," he said.

More than half the state's school districts do offer some sort of financial literacy education.

For those that don't, however, there is some urgency to this request. The letter just mentions a "progress report." It doesn't give a deadline. But Highland said districts have a year to get it done.  If they don't, they just might see that financial literacy bill come back around.

"If nothing has been done," he said, "we may have to pass a mandate."

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