For this fifth year of The Seattle Times Student Voices project, we invited students from Washington public high schools and colleges to work with Education Lab to write about issues of educational equity. This essay by Leah Scott is the fifth in the 2021 series. Visit http://st.news/studentvoices2021 to learn more about the student writers and read other essays in this series as they are published.

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I spent the summer of 2020 contemplating my life, from friendships to establishing goals for myself, big and small. How could I not grow when all it seemed I had on my hands was time?

I realized that I was now a senior and I had to get myself together. I am a Running Start student at North Seattle College, a program that allows me to take college-level courses as a high school student. I work two jobs and my income is more than steady, but I don’t know how to manage it.

I wondered if students or community members were, like me, struggling to figure out how to manage their income. I found a study that shows that financial literacy skills, the ability to answer basic finance questions, have been declining for years. According to the study, more and more people over the past nine years have been unable to answer basic questions about money, like: “Suppose you have $100 in a savings account earning 2% interest a year. After five years, how much would you have?” I wasn’t the only one experiencing this.

The report showed a sharp decrease between 2009 and 2018 in the ability of young adults (ages 18-34) to answer four out of five essential financial literacy questions correctly, from 30% to 17%. This hit me hard when I realized I had to figure out by myself how much taxes I owe. This experience ultimately made me wonder, why is it that school never taught me how to be financially literate? 

I asked Seattle School Board President Chandra Hampson the same question. She replied that financial literacy is taught in Seattle Public Schools, it’s just not universal. At Sand Point Elementary, for example, a group of parents raised money to send their students through a financial literacy program called BizTown. In this program, students role play as business people to learn how to budget and manage their own money. This is a select group of parents taking their students’ education into their own hands, and providing them with an opportunity that others don’t have access to. I was never given the opportunity or made aware of financial literacy courses, and it was shocking to me that others got the opportunity to do it when they were so young.

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The percentage of Sand Point students receiving free and reduced-price lunch is 31.5%, lower than the state average of 47.3%, which indicates that fewer students experience poverty or financial hardship at Sand Point than at the average state school. At the school, 43% of students are white. Historically, parents of color do not have the time or resources to raise their own money for the benefit of their students.

Seattle Public Schools essentially failed to teach me the crucial parts of life: budgeting, how to do my taxes, investing, and the list goes on. These are all things any adult would say they also wish they were taught in school. The responsibilities, complexities and hardships of adulthood shouldn’t come like a punch in the face but rather a gentle push. The sting of such a punch weighs on my shoulders. I have since taught myself, with help from the adults in my life, about how taxes work and how to file them, how to budget, and how to manage debt. Tons of students don’t have the resources or even know where to start to do such a thing, so why not have the educational system show them, before they graduate from high school? 

In 2016, Washington state made an empty promise to students. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction created standards for financial education ranging from credit and debt to overall financial decision-making, but today, these standards are not taught to all students. 

I had a talk with previous Seattle Public Schools educator Tola Atewologun about his experience with financial education at Roosevelt High School. Mr. Tola, as he is known, argued to the administration: “Other schools offer this curriculum, so why doesn’t Roosevelt?” He was told it would be on the roster as an option. Sounds great, right? But the class was never taught. We see yet again a promise made to students that was never fulfilled. 

My question to Seattle Public Schools, as well as to other school districts across Washington: When will you stop and realize that saying you will prioritize something isn’t enough? You have to actually do it. I shouldn’t have to spend hours each week looking up how to manage my finances on YouTube, or how to maintain a good credit score. These basic life skills should be incorporated into classroom material, or even made into a separate required class. Parents shouldn’t have to fundraise just to get their kids the quality education they deserve. 

I challenge you, Seattle Public Schools, to recognize how you are failing to educate and prepare students for adulthood. I challenge you to fully implement financial education, to make good on your promises. It is never too late to change. 

Thousands of students are going into and exiting the educational system every year, and preparing them for life is essential, especially in the midst of a global pandemic. Think of it this way: if you get lost in the woods, aren’t you likely to be less scared if you’ve learned some basic survival skills? Financial literacy is an essential survival skill in this world which is driven by currency and credit scores. We need to prepare students for these obstacles in life or we will have not only failed to keep a promise, but failed our duty as community members and educators to help students succeed.