By Deanna Martin — Associated Press Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — High school teacher Daniel Jackson is reviewing lessons some adults would find difficult: mortgage loans, down payments, interest rates and closing costs. He tosses calculators to students, chastises them for not studying enough and urges them to apply problem-solving skills to decipher complex mortgage information.
"This is a tool for you to use," he says. "I'm not giving you a hammer so you can stuff it in a sock drawer."
Soaring foreclosure rates and credit card debt are spurring some states to consider requiring personal finance classes in order to get a diploma, sparking criticism that parents should teach financial basics at home instead of packing life lessons into an already tight school day.
But advocates say the numbers — $900 billion in credit card debt and an 81 percent increase in foreclosures last year — show the dire need for financial education.
"The silver lining to our country's economic conditions just may be that we place a greater emphasis on financial education, which does our country well for many generations," said Laura Levine, executive director of the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy.
The push for personal finance legislation began earlier this decade, according to the JumpStart Coalition, which tracks state laws on the subject. Only three states — Utah, Missouri and Tennessee — now require students to take a one-semester personal finance class before graduating. Another 17 states require finance skills to be covered in other subjects, such as economics, social studies or math.
Indiana and Kansas are considering laws requiring personal finance to be taught from kindergarten through high school.
"This year there have been more compelling reasons than ever to make sure our young people are graduating from high school with some basic financial literacy skills," said Indiana state Sen. Teresa Lubbers, a Republican from Indianapolis who is one of the bill's authors.
The hope is to teach teenagers about credit before that first credit card offer arrives in the mail, and to show them how retirement accounts work before they land their first job. Younger children can learn how to compare prices or save money.
Schools once routinely covered basic finances such as balancing a checkbook, Levine said. Over the last several decades, educators started focusing more on college preparatory classes like science and math, she said, and the emphasis on basic living skills eroded.
A survey last year found that many teenagers struggle with finance. High school seniors averaged correct answers on only 48 percent of personal finance and economic questions, according to the nationwide survey released last year by the Federal Reserve. That was down from 52 percent in the previous survey in 2006 and marked the worst score of six surveys conducted so far.
The President's Advisory Council on Financial Literacy — formed last year to help more people understand basic money ideas — supports requiring financial education in kindergarten through 12th grade. Too many people are obtaining mortgages they don't understand and can't afford, while others lack skills to keep a budget, understand credit or save for the future, said Charles R. Schwab, the group's chairman.
"While there are many causes to the economic problems facing the country, it is undeniable that a lack of financial literacy is a contributing factor," Schwab wrote in the group's first report this January.
But some question whether that financial focus belongs back in schools.
The Indiana State Teachers Association says incorporating some aspects of personal finance into existing classes might work. But the union worries that tacking on a new required class — or forcing schools to teach extensive personal finance material — would squeeze out other important topics covered by federal and state accountability standards.
"If they're going to add it as a requirement, then they need to remove a requirement somewhere else," said Dan Clark, the union's deputy director. "Clearly it becomes an unfunded mandate."
Tennessee did not provide schools with added funding to handle its new requirement for a one-semester personal finance class. Most high schools simply assigned an existing teacher to cover the class required for students entering high school this fall, said Rachel Woods, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education.
"Part of providing a solid education is providing a well-rounded education," Woods said. "For many students, that understanding of personal finance is critical to being a productive member of our society."
Many children learn money skills from their parents, who can show them how to open a checking account or calculate net pay. Advocates say good habits taught by parents can be reinforced by classes at school.
Jackson tries to stress the importance of frugality and money management during his classes at Lawrence Central High School. Last semester, his personal finance class took a break from the textbook and studied the credit crunch.
"We focused on the impact that poor decision-making can have on one's personal finances as well as the overall economy," Jackson said. "It's a real-life perspective."
Senior Jessica Hipskind said she hopes to use what she's learned about mortgages in Jackson's business math class to buy a house one day.
"Some of it is hard," she said before taking a test on calculating mortgages. "But once you get the hang of it, then it gets easier every time."
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