[caption id="attachment_51565" align="alignright" width="437"] John McLaughlin, RCU's loss recovery and collateral manager, discusses financial safety at the spring 2011 Financial Literacy Academy. (Duncan Garrett photo, courtesy RCU)[/caption]
NORTH BAY -- At a time of historic strain on funding for schools in California, a number of local and national efforts are under way to support training in what many say is an important and often overlooked life skill for young adults -- personal finance.
It’s an issue that has drawn attention from the likes of the White House and California schools Superintendent Tom Torlakson -- that a marked lack of money management skills helped fuel a surge in consumer debt in recent years, besieging personal finances and slowing down the nation’s economic recovery.
Yet despite that high level of support for financial literacy efforts, education officials said the solution is not as simple as creating a required financial literacy curriculum in California. Mandated courses come with mandated costs -- costs that not every school district can afford.
“Every time we mandate a course, it’s $1 million dollars,” said Nancy Miller, director of career pathways and community outreach at Santa Rosa City Schools. Without the passage of statewide tax measures, that district could face an $8 million cut in the next fiscal year, she said.
In lieu of a mandated course and in an approach advocated at the state and national level, schools in the North Bay have chosen to integrate financial literacy into their academic offerings, embracing the topic while pursuing partnerships with nonprofits and financial institutions that enhance those efforts at no cost to districts.
The approaches vary, ranging from individual instructors integrating financial literacy into lesson plans to day-long sessions hosted off-site. Yet regardless of the methodology, a growing number of educators agree that the training is essential for the future financial health of students.
“You can go to any high school in Sonoma County and ask for a show of hands of anyone who has someone close to them who has financial challenges. You’ll see a lot of them,” said Rebecca Gallagher, education specialist in the Sonoma County Office of Education and California board member for the national financial literacy group, the Jump$tart Coalition. “I think it’s important.”
Only 48.3 percent of the country’s high school students were found to be financially literate in 2008, the lowest level in 10 years of surveys and the most recent comprehensive survey data available from Jump$tart. The organization indicates that 24 states have some sort of financial literacy curriculum mandate, and four of those states require at least one semester devoted to personal finance.
Addressing that issue in the North Bay, groups working with schools to enhance financial literacy education include the national nonprofit Jump$tart, which works to coordinate other groups, and the international Junior Achievement, as well as Santa Rosa-based Redwood Credit Union, Solano County-based Travis Credit Union and the California Society of CPAs.
In Santa Rosa’s school district, both Montgomery and Santa Rosa high schools have implemented a yearlong elective course for juniors called “Money Matters.” Created three years ago as a subset of the district’s career pathways program, the course features 180 hours of instruction and focuses on skills such as debt management, investing and financial planning, Ms. Miller said.
“We had so many students who were coming out of college with such severe debt that they would basically never be homeowners,” she said. “We try to do exercises with them that are realistic — we have them build a budget.”