It’s undoubtedly good news that more states are requiring high school juniors and seniors to take a one-semester Personal Financial Literacy (PFL) class this year to graduate. For years, far too many Americans entered adulthood without knowing the basics of budgeting, investing, borrowing, paying taxes, or how insurance works. Giving high school graduates the knowledge and skills to take control of their finances will pay huge dividends as fewer young people make costly financial mistakes.
But, the rapid expansion of required PFL classes has sparked a controversial but necessary debate: what expectations should all states have for high-quality and unbiased content and curriculum? Two major players in the PFL content field, Ramsey Solutions and Prager U, have come under recent criticism as new PFL classes are set to use their respective content. In Florida, some parents have criticized Ramsey Solution’s PFL content, created by popular personal finance guru Dave Ramsey, as overtly religious. In New Hampshire, Prager U’s new PFL material has come under fire as Prager U has been accused of overt political bias.
Does Personal Finance Include Partisanship?
Like many classes, especially in English and Social Studies, there is a lot of room for partisan bias and messaging in Personal Financial Literacy. One such topic where bias might be found involves the acceptability of debt and borrowing money. Whether it’s government borrowing (more likely discussed in Economics classes) or personal borrowing, more conservative teachers may take a more critical stance toward the practice. In units on budgeting, PFL teachers can strike different tones when it comes to spending on various line items, such as entertainment, education, health care, et cetera.
When it comes to investing, there can also be lots of politicking in terms of advising students on optimal future investments. ESG (environmental, social, and governance) has become a hot topic in corporate investment, with many investors wanting to focus on whether a firm is a good “corporate citizen” as opposed to simply their stock price and dividend performances. Is it appropriate for PFL teachers to discuss the ESG controversy with students? In recent years, both liberals and conservatives have criticized major corporations for their political speech and advertising, affecting stock prices and investment outcomes.
Topics Like Taxation and Borrowing Could be Controversial
Some PFL topics involve politics by their very nature, particularly fiscal policy and taxation. All students need to be taught about taxes, but should PFL teachers ever voice their opinions on optimal taxation policies or government spending priorities? While most PFL teachers will do an admirable job and seek to remain politically unbiased while presenting material, some facts lend quickly to student questions that may require politically unbiased answers. For example, why are most income taxes progressive, where the tax rates increase in higher-income brackets? Why do public colleges and universities allocate financial aid and scholarships like they do? Why do certain requirements exist for unemployment benefits and welfare, and are they fair or unfair?
Ultimately, most of these questions can be handled professionally and with relative neutrality. In the short run, however, there will likely be a few hiccups. One best practice for all PFL teachers, when faced with a brewing political debate, is to tell students to use their resources to look up the facts, data, and history for themselves. Hang in there, everyone!