11-7-05 - Financial illiteracy contributes to Oklahoma's acute social problems, demanding that schools require students to take courses in financial life skills such as balancing a checkbook, avoiding hefty credit card debt and investments, a legislator says.
Sen. Daisy Lawler, D-Comanche, won Senate approval this year of a bill she said would lead to an improved economy through requiring students to take a semester course in financial responsibility.
"In Oklahoma, we are in the top 10 in credit card debt and in bankruptcies," Lawler said. "We also are high in divorce and research shows that 57 percent of divorces are caused by arguments over finances.
"I believe if we can get our young people educated in high schools, we will alleviate some of these problems."
Financial pressures also add to the state's mental health problems, officials say. A 2003 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report showed Oklahoma had the highest rate of adult mental illness in the country, according to Gov. Brad Henry. Mental Health Commissioner Terry Cline says the state ranks 14th in the number of suicides per capita.
Lawler's bill remains alive in the House and she said Reps. Ann Coody, R-Lawton, and Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, say they will pursue the idea when the Legislature convenes in February.
Dorman was unsuccessful in his bid to pass a bill to stop universities from making a profit on selling personal information on students to credit card companies. Easy credit card access is a growing problem, he says.
While college students for years have gotten credit cards with little trouble, they are being issued with increasing frequency to high school students, according to Lawler.
She said she even had one parent complain about her junior high school son obtaining a credit card after he bought an airline ticket in his name.
By the time some students get out of college, Lawler said, they are saddled with so much student loan and credit card debt that it takes years to recover. Some turn to bankruptcy.
Then there are the complaints from parents who wind up paying off credit card bills they never knew their college students were piling up.
Lawler's bill would require that every Oklahoma student take a semester course in financial literacy between the eighth and 12th grades to graduate.
The measure has met with resistance from some school administrators reluctant to add another requirement for graduation. One major problem would be hiring enough qualified teachers for such courses.
Edna Ruth Mahaffey, state program administrator of the family and consumer science education division of the CareerTech system, supports the idea.
"I know lots of people whose quality of life is affected by poor money management," she said. "Some people make a lot of money but they get hung up in debt and they aren't happy. It is one of the leading causes of divorce."
She said the CareerTech has for years offered comprehensive financial management courses as an elective and has updated its curriculum.
"We have a real viable network in place," she said. "We wouldn't have to reinvent the wheel."
Lawler said financial illiteracy plays a role in more social problems than many might think.
She said many women who are victims of domestic violence also have been left out of family financial decisions and have an extra burden after divorce or separation.
"They do not have the skills they need" to make good financial decisions, she said.