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Oregon to Require Graduates to Pass Financial Literacy and Career Prep

The state’s Board of Education agreed to require high schoolers to take and pass stand-alone classes on financial literacy and college and career preparation to graduate, starting with this fall’s sophomores.

Oregon high schoolers will have to take and pass stand-alone classes on financial literacy and college and career preparation to graduate, starting with this fall’s sophomores.

The Oregon Board of Education, with uncharacteristic reluctance, made that decision this summer after lawmakers and legislative lawyers insisted on it.

Teacher unions, school boards and school administrators had heavily lobbied for schools to be allowed to integrate the new requirements into existing courses, such as math, rather than teach them as separate classes. They cited a lack of dedicated funding for hiring or training staff and a tight timeline, particularly affecting rural school districts.

State schools chief Charlene Williams seemed to agree. This spring, her agency recommended the state board give school districts maximum flexibility to meet the new requirements, which the Legislature passed last year.

But not long after that, lawmakers squelched the effort with a legal opinion that left little wiggle room.

Integrating financial literacy and college and career preparation materials into existing classes would “perpetuate the current practice of rushed or incomplete instruction as teachers are not given enough time or training to provide instruction in the new subject matters,” Senior Deputy Legislative Counsel Hannah Lai wrote in response to lawmakers’ query. Legislators made it clear that they expected semester-long stand-alone courses, she advised, and the state board did not have authority to deviate from that directive.

At a meeting last month, state board members followed that advice, though not without drama. Williams, despite repeated questioning from board member Shimiko Montgomery, would not endorse requiring districts to offer stand-alone personal finance and college and career readiness courses. Montgomery, along with board Vice Chair Jennifer Scurlock, subsequently voted against requiring districts to follow the legislative counsel’s directive.

Along with the abstention of a third state school board member, Libra Forde, that would have sent the issue back to the education agency’s drawing board — until Montgomery later changed her vote. Montgomery then added a plea for the Department of Education to work with the governor’s office to pressure the Legislature to earmark money to help school districts meet the requirement.

The result represented an unusual loss for the local control cherished by Oregon school district leaders and their employees, who deeply resent mandates handed down without attached funding.

Required high school financial literacy courses have been gaining steam across America, particularly amid rising concern about student loan debt. Such classes typically cover everything from how to pay taxes and understand the basics of credit cards and interest rates to how to open a bank account and cope with identity theft.

A 2023 study from the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in Vermont found that only seven states require students to take a semester long financial literacy class to graduate — but that 17 more states are expected to phase in such requirements by 2028, including Oregon.

Neighboring California just passed legislation making a standalone class in financial literacy a requirement for the class of 2031. In Washington state, by contrast, a bill that would have required students to take a financial literacy class to graduate died in the 2024 legislature. The state requires that students be given the option to take a financial literacy class but does not require that they do so to graduate.

Backers of the new Oregon graduation requirements include economics educators and members of the broader financial industry.

Ted Scheinman, an economics instructor at Mount Hood Community College, said he understands why officials worry about how to pay for the standalone courses. But he said community colleges can be a resource, both for dual credit courses and training high school economics teachers, as can financial institutions and online classes.

“Integrated means lost, and that is the key,” Scheinman said. “If you integrate the topic as a part of other classes, the teacher has no real incentive to be familiar with the material and it won’t matter too much. A student can still get an 80 percent, based on their knowledge of other things.”

Scheinman framed the issue in economic terms. District can spend the money now to help students learn about how to manage their finances or students can pay the price later, when that lack of knowledge comes back to hurt them, he said.

Some students, too, have backed the concept. Newport High School student Andrea Merino Comejo told lawmakers this year that taking a financial literacy class gave her a practical leg up. She said she learned “how to manage my money, how to build credit with a card [and] it has trained me how to buy a car from a private party. I can already see how it is getting me ready for my future finance decisions as an adult.”

But Reed Scott-Schwalbach, president of the Oregon Education Association, said her union remains concerned about implementation of the new requirements, though union members support the idea.

“Financial literacy is an important life skill. We want students to be ready for life,” she said. “We are deeply concerned about the unfunded mandate feature of this particular piece of legislation. And the [lack of] flexibility considered for the timeline is a problem for small districts, where staffing is tight.”

Districts may apply for a one year waiver to begin the new requirements for the class of 2028 instead.

Oregon’s graduation requirements have been in the spotlight of late. To graduate, the state’s high schoolers need to earn 24 credits, 13 of them in English, math, social studies and science. The state board has suspended, however, the requirement that students prove “basic mastery” of reading, writing or math in order to receive a diploma through the class of 2029.

State school board members and Oregon Department of Education officials have supported that change, saying requiring all students to pass one of several standardized tests or create an in-depth assignment their teacher judges as meeting state standards has been a harmful hurdle for historically marginalized students and did not translate to meaningful improvements in students’ post high school success.

©2024 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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