PROVIDENCE — A new bill sponsored by General Treasurer Seth Magaziner and two legislators would make personal finance instruction a high school graduation requirement in three years.
Magaziner, before a Thursday afternoon press conference at the State House, explained why teaching students about credit-card debt, interest rates, and balancing a checkbook is so important. The measure is co-sponsored by Sen. Sandra Cano, D-Pawtucket, and Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick.
In a study released late last month, Magaziner said Rhode Island’s college students have the second-highest student debt burden in the nation. The state’s rate of seriously delinquent mortgage loans is ninth-highest, the report found, and Rhode Island lags the country and the region in average retirement savings.
“There’s a lot of research that shows how personal finance is linked to better financial outcomes as students enter adulthood,” Magaziner said. “Despite that, Rhode Island does not have a personal finance requirement in its state curriculum.”
But state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner disagrees:
“We are supportive of further integrating financial literacy into our schools, and there are communities doing some really excellent work in this space. But we do not believe that opening up the secondary regulations again for [Council on Elementary and Secondary Education] review — which would be required in order to change graduation requirements — is necessary at this time, particularly without additional funding for schools.”
Wagner said, “There are other ways to build [district] capacity and increase personal finance offerings, including through ongoing professional learning for educators, which is prioritized in our updated teacher certification regulations.”
Although most Rhode Island high schools offer classes that include personal finance, typically as an elective, Magaziner said Rhode Island is one of only 14 states that doesn’t require it to be part of the curriculum.
Asked whether this would become another unfunded mandate, Magaziner said the cost of implementation would be low because there are numerous free, high-quality resources available to teachers. The Rhode Island Department of Education in 2014 established standards for personal finance instruction.
“There is so much out there, teachers have a hard time figuring out what they should use,” he said. “We ask that RIDE maintain a list of resources on their site” that represent high-quality curriculum. He said most high schools have at least one teacher who knows how to teach this subject.
Teachers will have flexibility over how the requirement is implemented. It could be a standalone program, a full semester or a shorter course. And students will be able to demonstrate proficiency in more than one way — completing a class, taking a test or completing a project.
“We’re also giving districts plenty of time to figure this out,” Magaziner said. The high school requirement wouldn’t take effect until the class of 2022.
Asked whether this requirement would prevent someone from graduating, he said, “This isn’t the NECAP [New England Common Assessment Program]. It’s a much more targeted base of knowledge that we are aiming for.”
In 2014, the NECAP was a hotly contested graduation requirement that divided teachers, parents and students, and ultimately led to both the legislature and then-education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist pushing the requirement down the road. When Wagner became commissioner, he decided against using a single test as a graduation requirement, a move that calmed parents and educators who worried about relying on a single assessment to decide who gets a diploma.
Magaziner said it’s vital to give students the skills they need to become successful adults.
“Otherwise” he said, “there are real pitfalls that young people can fall into early in life that can trap them in a cycle of debt.”
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