While Carroll County students will be required to take a financial literacy course to graduate starting next year, concerns linger over whether mandating the course is the most effective way to teach money matters to teens.
"The course is likely a good thing, but I am convinced it is not the best thing," school board President Thomas G. Hiltz said last week. "One course is not a panacea and, alone, will not make our students financially literate."
After a lengthy debate about requiring the class, board members voted 4-1 to require students beginning next school year to take the half-credit course. It will cover concepts such as money management, consumer rights and responsibilities, credit, savings and investing.
Carroll joins a handful of Maryland school systems - including Harford, St. Mary's, Talbot and Baltimore counties - with a similar requirement.
The financial course was one of several changes to the high school program of studies that the board approved.
During last week's meeting, Hiltz joined Cynthia L. Foley in supporting a motion to amend the proposal that would have eliminated financial literacy as a required course. The motion to amend failed in a 3-2 vote.
Foley was the lone dissenter when the original proposal came to a vote. Hiltz said he voted to approve the high school program of studies that included the financial literacy requirement because he supported the overall plan.
"While it did not turn out the way I may have wanted ... unless I believe there has been an egregious mistake in judgment, a vote against the entire high school program of studies is, in my view, sour grapes," Hiltz said in an e-mail.
During the meeting, Hiltz suggested the board needed more time to consider alternatives, such as incorporating elements of the course into already required classes or developing a comprehensive "financial literacy program," not a single course.
Hiltz also said a required course would necessitate about 10 teachers each year and cost the system about $600,000 annually.
"My overwhelming concern is not cost - it is effectiveness," Hiltz said. "The $600,000 is a low cost if the course is effective. An effective course will return that investment. It is a high cost if it is ineffective."
School officials said statistics suggest teens and young adults are assuming too much credit card debt and are not knowledgeable about finances.
About one in five students gets a personal finance course during high school, according to the JumpStart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy, which surveys high school seniors every other year to gauge financial aptitude.
Of the 5,775 high school seniors in 37 states who participated in that survey this year, students on average scored 52.4 percent on 30 questions, according to the group.
A 2004 poll of college administrators found that excessive credit card debt was the primary reason students dropped out and the secondary reason was low grades, according to the Maryland Coalition for Financial Literacy.
Carroll school officials said last week that in a "pre-test" given to about 30 students taking the financial literacy elective this semester, the highest score was about 60 percent - with some students scoring much lower.
"Personal finances are not being taught in the home," said Patricia Hummel, a parent who also teaches financial literacy at Winters Mill High as a permanent substitute. "Studies have shown that only 26 percent of 13- to 21-year-olds reported that their parents actively taught them how to manage money.
Hummel supported a required financial literacy course because, "unless this class is mandated, students will not take advantage of the class."
Hiltz said that while the district has piloted a financial literacy course, no local data has been collected on its effectiveness.
"We all agree that financial literacy is essential," he said. "The lack of a real consideration of other options ... troubled me greatly. I am concerned that we picked low-hanging fruit, which may be the most expensive and least effective option."