California May Get Gold Standard of Financial Literacy Education Through Ballot Initiative in 2024

21 states allow citizens to propose statutes.


Currently, 23 states have passed legislation to require a one-semester Personal Financial Literacy (PFL) class for high school graduation. This mandatory one-semester class is the “gold standard” in financial literacy education, providing the time and accountability for high school juniors and seniors to learn about the nuts and bolts of personal finance. Unfortunately, several other states have seen similar bills proposed, but ultimately fail. Sometimes, the bills get “watered down” during the amendment process, turning a PFL gold standard requirement into the simple addition of personal finance content into other courses.

In California, this was the case: a gold standard bill proposed by assemblyman Kevin McCarty was diluted into adding PFL content to existing Economics classes. Although that would be the end of the story in some states, California law allows for a hail mary: the ballot initiative process. In 21 states, private citizens can get a proposed law placed on the ballot, to be made law if it passes a referendum (popular vote). Next Gen Personal Finance is now trying to get McCarty’s bill made law through this process. And if it works in California, other states could be next! Currently, Next Gen founder Tim Ranzetta is confident – polling shows that almost 80 percent of Californians support McCarty’s proposal.

Ballot Initiatives Can Work When Legislatures Do Not

Historically, voters have used ballot initiatives to act when legislatures refuse to work on desired bills. During the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, many states passed laws to allow ballot initiatives, referendums, and even recall elections. According to Ballotpedia, many ballot initiatives since the Progressive Era have dealt with education, with the Next Gen PFL proposal as the 136th – and most recent – ballot initiative related to education from the state of California.  

With strong public support for financial literacy education, it stands to reason that ballot initiatives in states that allow them and have yet to require a PFL class for high school graduation (Colorado, the Dakotas, Montana, Nevada, and other western states). As the most populous state in the nation, a successful ballot initiative in California would likely spawn similar initiatives in other states. In states with low populations, like Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Montana, a relatively small percentage of high school parents could push through a ballot initiative to ensure their teens get the real-world knowledge and skills they need to minimize debt and prepare for retirement.

Educators May Have Outsize Impact on Ballot Initiatives

In addition to parents, teachers themselves may be able to use ballot initiatives to good effect to ensure the gold standard in financial literacy education. In most counties, the school district is the largest single employer, meaning teachers have more power than they may think when it comes to ballot initiative states. Getting all public K-12 teachers and staff on board with the importance of a mandatory PFL class for high school graduation may help ensure the success of ballot initiatives on the topic. And if teachers were successful in securing that initiative, they could go further with other pro-education proposals – the sky is the limit!

About the Author

Owen Rust

Owen Rust teaches AP Economics and AP Government in Texas, and has also taught Personal Financial Literacy, which Texas high schools must now offer! He has a Master's degree in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M University and is passionate about young people learning how to take charge of their financial and investing goals. Outside of teaching, Owen is also a writer who writes about politics, government, education, economics, and finance and investing.

Last updated on: July 8, 2024