An enhanced financial literacy program, supported by local students, faces an uncertain future

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A Rhinelander high school teacher and students are among the strongest supporters of a state bill requiring more financial literacy education.

Several state organizations say it’s a good cause, but the mandate would be too difficult for many local schools to implement.

Last week, three students from Rhinelander High School sat before the Assembly Education Committee in Madison.

They all said that teacher Pat Kubeny’s personal finance class was the most important class they took in high school.

“Mr. Kubeny, our business teacher at school, taught me and my classmates how to properly manage our money by budgeting and opening a Roth IRA. He also taught us the dangers of payday loans and how to use a credit card effectively,” said William Rutkowski.

“This class has personally helped me with a lot of things,” Hunter St. Louis acknowledged. “The main thing that taught me was the importance of saving money for retirement and how important it is to save money.”

The semester class is a requirement for graduation at Rhinelander, but not all schools require a financial literacy class.

A new bill would change that. This would make a full year of financial literacy training a requirement for Wisconsin high school graduation. Kubeny supports the measure.

“If you truly value what’s best for your constituents and want them to be financially healthy, you have the power to make that happen in this bill,” said Kubeny to the committee.

But educational organizations are lining up to oppose the bill.

They point out that a 2017 law already requires schools to teach personal finance topics, but gives schools the option to incorporate them into classes like social studies and math.

Ben Niehaus is the director of member services for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards and former superintendent of Florence.

He said the requirement for a separate finance class was a well-intentioned move. But it’s yet another mandate that would strain schools’ resources and remove local decision-making.

“Even though I don’t run a school district now, if I had brought this in, I can guarantee there would have been a reduction in optional offerings, whether it was outright reductions or a course which, you know what, we can’t do this every year now,” Niehaus said.

Many schools, especially the smaller districts in Northwoods, don’t even employ a teacher dedicated to teaching business.

“As well-meaning as all these things are, there’s not a lot of time and space in the day,” Niehaus said. “We really think local school boards should have control over what some of these offerings are going to be and how they’re going to pan out based on who they are as individual schools.”

The Wisconsin Rural Schools Alliance is among other organizations opposing the legislation.

The bill is pending action in the legislature.

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