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Should Voters Decide What Schools Teach?

As they choose a presidential candidate in the November election, California voters may also have an unusual opportunity to decide whether the state should add a new course to its high school graduation requirements.

While supporters say the course is urgently needed, critics say the unusual step of putting curriculum-related issues directly to voters could prompt more such proposals—including the hot-button issues that have plagued many other states over the past three years.

The proposed ballot measure would require a one-semester, one-credit course on personal finance, including instruction in budgeting, credit, and investment, concepts that will help students thrive as adults, supporters say. The item has qualified for the general election ballot, but organizers say they will pull it if a similar bill passes the state legislature in time.

Taking the issue to the voters “is not a step we take lightly,” said Tim Ranzetta, a California businessman who has spent about $7.5 million to support the initiative through a campaign called Californians for Financial Education. “There’s been two decades of attempts [to pass financial literacy bills] in the legislature that have frankly let down California youth, and this is very popular.”

But skeptics of the proposal say that setting a course requirement—even a broadly supported one—by popular vote could open up the floodgates to electioneering about more controversial classroom subjects, like how schools discuss race and sexuality. And school districts could face practical and financial challenges meeting new mandates, especially if the trend accelerates. Those requirements would stack on top of requirements California has added through legislation in the last decade, such as teaching about LGBTQ+ topics and ethnic studies.

“We should all be concerned about the precedent of citizen-led initiatives mandating curriculum,” said Amy Farley, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Cincinnati who has studied the history of education-related ballot measures.

The California financial education requirement may be the first time a state asks voters to consider a specific course requirement, said Farley, who analyzed 282 education-related ballot questions states considered from 1902-2012 for a 2019 study.

Twenty-six states, largely clustered in thesouthern and western regions of the country, allow for voters to collect signatures to place initiatives or referenda on the ballot. Most education questions have related to school finance, governance, and civil rights issues like school integration, Farley said.

“Rarely have [ballot questions] been used to legislate curriculum and instruction,” she said. Farley’s analysis identified nine ballot questions related to classroom content, which all focused on issues like textbook selection, sex education, and teaching evolution. None set a single course mandate.

More states require financial literacy

State financial literacy requirements are a growing trend, though California would be the first to consider the issue through a popular vote. Legislatures in 25 states have passed bills mandating finance education courses, though some are not fully implemented, according to the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College.

Many of those bills passed with support from Next Gen Personal Finance, an organization founded by Ranzetta, the businessman behind the California effort. The organization also offers professional development and free teaching materials related to financial literacy.

California is known for an unwieldy ballot initiative process that leaves voters to consider numerous technical, and sometimes conflicting, alterations to state law. Critics have said voters sometimes don’t understand the complexity of ballot issues, which are written in legal jargon and often placed on the ballot through paid petition drives. Voters have passed measures over issues like bilingual vs. English-only instruction, but never on an issue as granular as a personal finance course requirement.

The finance education ballot measure would require all high schools, including charter schools, to offer a personal-finance course by the 2026-27 school year. Starting in 2029-30, that course would be required for students to graduate. Local school boards could choose their own curriculum to teach concepts, including the dangers of predatory lending, the tax system, establishing credit, and retirement accounts.

The push for financial literacy classes has support from prominent Californians, including Superintendent for Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and the state’s Republican and Democratic parties.

“If our children are equipped with the skills to understand and change their own financial situation, we can help shrink the gender wage gap and build generational wealth in our communities of color as our young people move forward and manage their money, grow their wealth, and understand value when making critical decisions for their own futures and their future families,” Thurmond said in a March 26 statement.

Californians for Financial Education touts an April 2022 poll of 604 California voters in which 85 percent of respondents agreed that “all high school students should be guaranteed to take a basic course in personal finance.” Fifty-eight percent of respondents to the poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, said it was “very urgent” for state lawmakers to pass a law requiring the course in California high schools. The poll did not ask whether students should be required to take the course or if respondents supported requiring it through a ballot measure.

The issue became a personal passion for Ranzetta 13 years ago when he volunteered to teach a personal finance course at a high school in East Palo Alto, Calif., where most college hopefuls would be the first in their families to earn a degree.

At a recent event, students he taught over a span of eight years returned to share how the class had affected their lives. One became an entrepreneur after learning about financing a business, and another traced his work on Wall Street to lessons Ranzetta taught about investing. Several discussed sharing the lessons they’d learned with their families.

“I saw the ripple effects first hand,” Ranzetta said. “You can’t unsee it. You walk away wondering why every student doesn’t learn this content.”

A harmful precedent?

But even supporters of the finance class have reasons to be concerned about requiring it through popular vote, Farley said.

Schools have limited time to teach concepts like advanced math and literacy that are necessary to compete in a changing economy, and future ballot questions might crowd out needed coursework, critics have said.

That’s especially concerning at a time of polarizing debates over issues like teaching “divisive concepts” and critical race theory, Farley said.

While existing restrictions have been passed by conservative state legislatures, it’s not inconceivable that political groups with deep pockets could campaign to put the issue—or less popular course requirements—on a state ballot. And those campaigns can have a chilling effect on classroom discussions, even if the measures don’t win enough votes to become law, Farley said.

“No one wants to come out at the person who ‘doesn’t support democracy,’” Farley said. “But I think we should be concerned about the specific precedent this sets.”

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