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Florida Financial Literacy Efforts Hit Snag

Efforts to require Florida high school students to take a financial literacy class to graduate hit a snag this week when Florida Governor Rick Scott vetoed a plan to pilot the idea in Broward County.

Advocates say it's just a temporary setback in a state that has historically been a leader in efforts to strengthen financial literacy in high school.

Last summer, Education Week reported that Florida had become the first state in the country to adopt the Council for Economic Education's K-12 National Standards for Financial LiteracyOver the past two years, advocates have sought to strengthen efforts in that state by advancing bills that would require a stand-alone financial literacy class. So far, none have passed.

The most recent effort came earlier this year. Lawmakers and business leaders rallied support for House Bill 29 and Senate Bill 92 which would have required students to take a semester of financial literacy in order to graduate. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, called it an "economic no-brainer" according to the Tampa Bay Times.

However, according to WUSF News,  as of April the bill still hadn't been discussed by the committee. So in order to give it a second shot, an alternative proposal was placed into the Florida Senate's budget plan. The proposal would have recast the idea as a pilot project in Broward County with hopes of expanding it to other counties.

That Broward County plan was what the governor shot down this week even though it would have only cost about $30,000, according to news reports.

I've been following the landscape of financial literacy legislation. Here is some of our coverage. The interesting thing about the Florida situation is that the state isn't a barren wasteland for financial literacy education right now. In fact, the state passed a law a few years ago to require that it be taught as part of economics courses. That's why some think making schools teach it as a separate class is unnecessary.

The problem, say advocates, is that the current law only requires that 25 percent of the economics course be dedicated to financial literacy. They say that just isn't enough.

"We're lucky to have that as a baseline minimum, but we need more than that," said Suzanne Costanza, director of programs and communications for the Florida Council on Economic Education. WUSF interviewed students for that April story who said the little bit of financial literacy instruction they were getting in economics wasn't really doing the trick. One student said she still had no idea how to manage her money after taking the economics course.

It's unclear why the governor declined to fund the proposal. It was among several items he removed from the budget bill. The Florida CEE said the governor's decision is a minor setback, but not a roadblock.

"It's definitely just a temporary setback," said Costanza. "We are resilient. If nothing else we have a lot of great backers who are eager to see students get this and we have such an outpouring of support from teachers in the state. They understand the ramifications of having a student body that doesn't require this education before they graduate from high school."

Education Week reported last year that 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. A 2014 survey by the Council for Economic Education noted slow progress in the number of states that require that students be tested on personal finance knowledge. It said 17 states at that time required students to take personal finance in order to graduate.

But why do advocates think it so important make a stand-alone financial literacy class mandatory? Why not do as some states like Kansas and Connecticut are doing and simply encourage districts to teach it the way they think is best?

I asked Costanza.

She believes making financial literacy education a requirement is the only way to ensure students will learn it.

"The only way you can do that is by having some sort of mandate," she said.

"So many people are not taught financial literacy in the home we need to make sure students are getting that education somewhere," she said. "We've all learned the harsh realities, you get a credit card and spend, spend, spend because you don't know about interest rates or what it will do with your credit score. It goes back to the finances of your state. People can't buy cars or homes because of their credit."

"We say it doesn't matter where life takes you," she said, "personal finance and economics are always going to be an important part of your life."

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