Lawmakers hear push for more finance, civics education in schools

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STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 24, 2015….Knowledge of financial practices and the workings of government were described as cornerstones of modern-day literacy on Thursday by supporters of legislation that would bring finance and civics instruction to Massachusetts schools.

Students and teachers told members of the Joint Committee on Education during a hearing that they see demand in schools for financial literacy and civics courses, which several bills before the committee seek to add to public school curriculum.

Whitman-Hanson Regional High School business education teacher Lydia Nelson told the committee that her school offers a financial literacy elective, which accommodates about one-third of the student body.

“We’ve actually begun to bring in another teacher because we have so much of a need,” Nelson said. “I’ve had parents request, and this is the truth, on parents night they’ve actually spoken to the guidance counselor about transferring out of a class and transferring into that class.”

Eight bills before the committee dealt with creating financial literacy programs in schools, including a Sen. Jamie Eldridge bill that drew the bulk of the testimony.

Eldridge’s bill (S 279) would task the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education with developing standards and objectives around personal financial literacy, intended to provide students with an understanding of concepts like borrowing money, saving, paying taxes and using credit cards.

Under Eldridge’s proposal, the 2016 school year would see financial literacy integrated into the curriculum in math, business, technology, social sciences or courses in other areas where “teachers have the capacity to teach financial literacy.” The Acton Democrat said during the hearing that he’s seen interest grow in establishing financial literacy programs, including from financial advisors and chambers of commerce.

Benadette Manning, a teacher at Boston’s Fenway High School, said that an argument against adding financial literacy programs is the perception that teachers are already too busy to be hampered with more requirements.

“But teachers were never asked,” Manning said. “And every time I ask a teacher, they agree with it.”

Ten bills seek to increase civics knowledge among Massachusetts students, by either making it a high school graduation requirement or otherwise establishing civics courses and programs.

Gillian Pressman, Greater Boston site director for the civics education group Generation Citizen, said that such courses can help motivate students by associating their schoolwork with issues they encounter in daily life, as well as teaching them how to speak and write compellingly and critically analyze claims.

“These are actually 21st century literacy skills,” Pressman said.

In addition to establishing a civics curriculum, Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler’s bill (S 249) would call on all public school districts to offer a unit of civics education, including a course, weekend program or model United Nations program, that ends with a voter registration drive. It also would set up a youth advisory committee that would work the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to develop the curriculum.

Chandler said during the hearing that she was distressed by continuing low levels of voter turnout, and a situation where “very few people seem to know how they’re governed.”

“I took civics in high school and it made a difference in my life,” said Chandler, a Worcester Democrat. “It sparked my interest.”

A panel of 10 students from The Winchendon School stood behind Chandler as she testified, as a show of support for her legislation.

D’mone Walker, a 17-year-old member of Worcester’s Healthy Options for Prevention and Education Coalition, said that involvement in his group’s peer leadership program showed him that teenagers often don’t understand the principles of civics.

“We realized that our peers weren’t really engaged in the community, and we feel it would be different if we all learned what civics really is,” he said. “Since we’re all going to school to get an education, why not have it offered in schools as well, so that we can all learn it together?”

Copyright 2015 State House News Service

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