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Financial Literacy Is No Longer Required In Florida Schools, But Many Still Teach It

Nov 25, 2019

In the gym at Bayshore High School in Bradenton, 16-year-old Yazmin Ramirez is handed a sheet of paper describing her life's work.

"I'm a maid-slash-housekeeper. My yearly income is $19,510. I'm a dropout. I'm single. I have no children. And my balance right now is $1,202,” said Ramirez. “This is depressing, but we'll see what I can do with it.”

In real life, Ramirez said she is looking into business management for a career.

But for this exercise, called "Big Bank Theory," she heads out to different stations across the gym to get housing, turn on her electricity, and buy a car on her maid’s salary.

Ramirez signs up for a two-bedroom apartment, even gets a roommate. But suddenly her situation is dire.

"It’s bad. I'm at $688 right now. And I still have to get a car, pay my utility bills and groceries,” she lamented.

"Oh my God, they gave me everything I don't want in life.”

The hour-long session is sponsored by the Manatee County Chamber of Commerce. It’s part of high school economics, a small portion of which is devoted to financial literacy - teaching students how to budget their money, balance a checkbook, and keep up with their bills.

According to a Florida law signed earlier this year, financial literacy is no longer a required part of high school economics.

But many area high schools are continuing to teach the basics of budgeting, despite the change to the law.

Daniel Green watches from the bleachers as his students go from station to station. He has been teaching for 35 years, and says for these kids, most of whom come from low-income families, learning about money is important.

“They don't get it growing up,” said Green. “When I graduated from high school, I wasn't exposed to any of this.

“And I struggled financially for three, four years before I figured it out. And I want these kids to figure it out before they hit the streets.”

Students at Bayshore High School get lessons in how to budget money on a range of salaries. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

The same sentiment was behind a years-long effort to improve financial literacy training in Florida schools.

At the end of the 2019 legislative session, a bill was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis.

But rather than make financial literacy mandatory, as many advocates hoped, it did the opposite.

It removed the requirement that it be taught in economics, and called for a more in-depth course worth half a credit - but that course is only an elective.

Supporters of the law say it gives students a chance to learn a lot more about personal finance, including investing and other complicated topics that can't be covered in a matter of a week or two.

Critics say the fact that it's an elective could mean far fewer students are exposed to financial literacy in high school in the years to come.

“There have been conversations that it eventually will be removed from economics," said Suzanne Costanza, executive director of the Florida Council on Economic Education. The law wasn't exactly what she wanted, but she says it was hard to reach agreement on adding a mandatory course to students' already heavy workload.

In Green's view, the decision to strip the requirement that financial literacy be included with economics made little sense.

“I don't understand a lot of things that are decided in Tallahassee. They need this,” said Green.

He plans to keep teaching it, and so do many others. WUSF contacted school districts in Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties, and all say they are continuing to teach financial literacy in high school economics this school year, as they develop a future elective for later this year or next.

Costanza said she’s found similar results.

“In all of our dealings with different districts and social studies supervisors and curriculum personnel across the state, we haven't found any districts that have actually decided to remove it," Costanza said.

"And in fact, many have said that, they will, in fact, keep it in even in addition to offering the elective course as well.”

Meanwhile, the Big Bank Theory exercise is now in its 10th year.

Yazmin Ramirez, 16, learns that a maid's salary isn't enough to pay for housing, a car and basics like utilities, food and health insurance. Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

Manatee County Chamber of Commerce President Jacki Dezelski said it got started because “local business people were commenting that, particularly their younger employees, seem to lack financial literacy."

The idea is to help students see the effect of a range of choices, from doctoral degrees to dropouts.

“We want them to understand and compare so they see...‘Well gosh, if I go on and make a decision to pursue something post-secondary it affects my bottom line,’” said Dezelski.

And there are two new stations this year to prepare students for adult life in other ways.

At one, they can register to vote, said Terri Behling, vice president of workforce and community development at the Chamber.

“We are able to pre-register students as young as 16 to register to vote and when they turn 18, it comes to them in the mail and it's all done and taken care of for them. So a lot of students do take advantage of that,” she said.

Another new station is dedicated to making sure students and their parents know how to apply for free money for college, with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Business leaders say the FAFSA is now part of the program because being smart about money includes knowing how to not to spend it - if you don’t have to.