SOUTH JORDAN — High school students in Utah are required to take a half-year course on financial literacy prior to graduation.
But the inconsistent and sometimes neglected subject matter has resulted in a class that many see as insufficient, ill-preparing students for the realities of a modern, digital economy.
"None of us use checkbooks," Bingham High School senior Emma Williams said. "A lot of us are going to be taking out (student) loans and a lot of us don’t even know that we need to have a credit score."
High School financial literacy is set to receive a significant overhaul beginning this fall after lawmakers approved a bill that establishes statewide curriculum standards, a year-end assessment and ongoing funding for educator training. On Friday, a group of roughly 30 students from Bingham High will travel to the state Capitol for a ceremonial signing of SB40, which was officially signed into law last month.
"I really think it will be a critical piece of legislation that will have lasting positive effects on our students and future parents and taxpayers," the bill's sponsor Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, said. "I really think it will be a game-changer."
Jones said that since the creation of the financial literacy requirement several years ago, the program has had mixed results. In many cases, she said, teachers with no background in economics or finances were assigned to teach the course, or it was a simple online class that students gave little attention to.
"In some schools it’s really very effective and in other schools it is not," she said.
Bingham High School senior Joel Howarth said he is currently enrolled in a financial literacy course and relatively little of the information presented in the class applies to him.
"I'm taking it right now," he said. "I don't feel like I've learned anything."
Howarth and his AP Political Science classmates at Bingham High worked with Jones to lobby for the bill's passage during the most recent legislative session. Students testified in support of the bill in committee and observed from the chamber galleries as lawmakers debated and cast their votes.
"There’s lots of things that are being put on our generation so it’s extra important that we’re learning how to do this," Williams said.
The students' teacher, Scott Crump, said that each year his political science classes select a bill sponsored by area lawmakers to lobby during the legislative session. He said Jones' financial literacy bill "rose to the top" of the pieces of legislation the class was considering because the students had firsthand knowledge of how it would impact state law.
"All of them had taken the class," he said. "They knew what the situation was in that class."
Lawmakers approved $450,000 in funding for the bill, which will be used to create a year-end assessment and provide for ongoing training and certification of financial literacy teachers.
Jones said securing funding for the bill was key in transforming the financial literacy requirement, because it will allow for student learning to be measured in a consistent manner and it will ensure the classes are taught by educators who are engaged in the material.
She also said that teaching students financial literacy now is more important than ever in a world where online and mobile banking have replaced trips to the local savings and loan.
The aim of the financial literacy courses, she said, is to prevent financial disaster before students enter college or begin a career.
"We live in a very different environment where money doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to," she said. "The kids need to understand the difference between a debit card and a credit card and how to use them responsibly."
Crump said that while he does not teach financial literacy, he recognizes the need for high-quality instruction in that subject area.
"It's an essential part of being a good American citizen," he said.
He also said that it's gratifying as an educator to see his students involved in the successful passage of state law.
"For me that's the payday," he said. "When you get them involved in the process they develop life-long learning traits."
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