Supporters of the state’s new career-track diploma law believe it can keep more high school students from dropping out while readying them for jobs in manufacturing and the petrochemical industries.
But the law also includes another difference-maker — an option that lets public school students take financial literacy as one of their required math courses.
“I really feel that this is probably the most effective thing that can be done to help people and empower them to make good decisions that would affect them for the rest of their lives,” said Robert Taylor, chief executive officer of the Louisiana Bankers Association.
The financial crisis that sent the country into a recession was based on home loans, Taylor said. There were lenders who enticed people into taking home loans they shouldn’t have. If those home buyers understood better what they were doing, no matter what a mortgage company was selling, they would have realized the loan ultimately made no sense.
The LBA, which represents community banks, is hoping the financial literacy courses can arm students with practical knowledge they can use to avoid poor fiscal choices in the future.
It will take some time to measure the impact of the financial literacy option. The career-track diploma law passed just a few months ago. State officials and public high schools have barely begun the process of figuring out what the classes will involve and who will be allowed to teach them.
Previously, the financial literacy efforts in the state have included Louisiana Jump$tart, a coalition of organizations. Among other things, the nonprofit group trains teachers to teach financial literacy to students.
For now, financial literacy is just a portion of other classes, such as the principles in business course at Woodlawn High School in Baton Rouge.
Future entrepeneurs Tyler Johnson, Kyron Fisher and Marquis Bell, ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders at Woodlawn, said the financial literacy section of that class is helping them prepare for their entry into the business world.
“It teaches you how to spend money when you get it … the right way,” Fisher said.
Among other things, that means following a budget, he said.
David Wilburn, their teacher, said a person who can handle his personal finances can probably manage his business finances as well.
An entire financial literacy course is definitely needed more now than ever.
“Technology’s moving so fast that the apps they have on their phone, they can check their accounts and make transactions in a split second,” Wilburn said.
It’s important for students to be able to make good decisions with that technology.
Wilburn said students’ ability to absorb financial literacy lessons depends on their maturity level. While some underclassmen can quickly pick up the concepts, the seniors really need it.
There are lots of different programs available, Wilburn said. H&R Block; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.; EverFi, an education software company; and a host of others offer training materials. Woodlawn is using EverFi’s financial literacy software through a grant from Regions Bank.
Wilburn is also pushing his students to take part in H&R Block’s Budget Challenge, a nationwide online game that awards scholarships and grants for the top finishers. Students’ scores are based on their ability to pay bills and taxes, manage expenses, save money and invest in retirement.
Ronnie Pocorello, who is head of career and tech education for the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, said contests and classes that give students a feeling for how things work in the real world are important.
For years, the state and schools have been preaching “rigor” when it comes to course work, he said. But rigor doesn’t mean anything without relevance.
For example, an algebra equation x+y=z may not mean much to a student. But when Wilburn teaches a student that $50 in a savings account earns 3 percent interest, the concept becomes concrete, Pocorello said.
Pocorello and Wilburn worry that the state may only allow certified math teachers to teach the financial literacy courses, and that a purer math approach might reduce the relevance for students. Those details must still be worked out.
But Taylor and other financial literacy supporters are optimistic.
“This is, I think, a big step,” Taylor said. “Because if you’re going to get to people and help them, having this in the schools is probably the best place we can start this education process.”
Ted Beck, president and chief executive officer of the National Endowment for Financial Education, said the classes are an encouraging idea and provide a life skill that people can use immediately.
Financial literacy is the kind of math that has a direct application, he said. It’s also the kind of math people use every day, and a practical skill that schools taught for decades.
A University of Arizona study found that taking a financial class was one of three key factors among people who avoided risky financial behavior, Beck said. The others were having a family that talked about money and having a part-time job.
The Program for International Student Assessment, published in July, measured 15-year-olds’ financial literacy in 18 countries as of 2012.
The United States ranked a not very impressive ninth, Beck said.
Shanghai, China, was first by a large margin. Nearly 43 percent of 15-year-olds there achieved the highest level of financial literacy, compared with 9 percent in the United States.
The study will be repeated in 2015, and Beck is hoping the U.S. performance improves.
“It’s a global marketplace, and we need to make sure our young people are going to be prepared to compete in that space,” Beck said.
Taylor said the financial literacy option of the career-track diploma law emerged following the LBA’s discussions with legislators in the House and Senate Finance Committee. This may have been because of the payday loan issue.
The Pew Charitable Trusts found that people who use payday loan services pay an average of $520 in interest to borrow $375. The average household that didn’t have a bank account spent about 10 percent of its income for services such as check cashing and payday loans.
Efforts to cap interest rates on payday loans at 36 percent failed during the most recent legislative session. But the issue drew lots of attention.
The community bankers and legislators thought financial education could help consumers avoid the problems associated with payday loans, Taylor said.
The author of the career-track bill, Rep. Jim Fannin, R-Jonesboro, attended the joint committee meeting and added the financial literary option.
Taylor said Louisiana has to make an effort to see that when students graduate from high school, they do so with some basic personal financial skills.
“Hopefully you’ll carry those over and it can result in making good decisions and not getting caught in situations that are really detrimental to you,” Taylor said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.