As the New Mexico Public Education Department prepares to overhaul its K-12 social studies standards for the first time in two decades, a local nonprofit is pushing the state agency to include an unconventional topic: personal finance.
Santa Fe-based Think New Mexico says public school students could build practical financial skills while learning about economics, which already is taught in social studies classes. If its recommendations are approved, the group says, the state’s kindergartners eventually will be able to distinguish financial “needs” from “wants,” and high school graduates will be able to invest in a Roth IRA and decipher the fine print in loan agreements.
“Personal finance alone is not the silver bullet to solving all of our problems in education, but it’s a start,” said Abenicio Baldonado, Think New Mexico’s education reform director. “We can start attacking generational poverty, which our state has suffered from.”
Many students would take their newfound financial knowledge home to parents and guardians who may need it, Baldonado added.
Changes to the social studies standards have stirred controversy across the state, with much of the attention centered on themes like social justice and tribal sovereignty. The new standards also aim to ensure students examine historical events from the viewpoints of various ethnic groups and learn about different cultures. Some Republican lawmakers have decried the overhaul as a shift toward “critical race theory” — a concept in higher education surrounding the role of race in legal institutions.
Think New Mexico is not focused on that debate, Baldonado said.
“At this point, we haven’t taken a position on anything” other than financial literacy, he said. “But we did feel this was an opportunity to really push our initiative of getting personal finance into the standards.”
Not everyone is sure financial literacy belongs in social studies classes, however.
Bowden Russell, a math teacher in the Magdalena Municipal School District, said he thinks personal finance may be a subject better suited for a math class.
Russell has worked as an engineer and a stockbroker. He now teaches a financial literacy course for seniors in the tiny Central New Mexico district. In his class, students often are making tough calculations and navigating complicated tax forms.
“Why put it out of the math department if it’s going to take a math or finance person to teach it?” he said. “If I wasn’t an engineer or finance person, I wouldn’t know how to teach it.”
Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy secretary of public education, wrote in a recent email the state’s proposed social studies standards already include some financial literacy principles. She cited some potential concerns about the Think New Mexico proposal, in which students would learn about chore money and college funds, because of the state’s high number of public school students living in poverty. “For example, it could be insensitive to ask a third grader what chores she can do to earn money or to ask an eighth grader about the change in value over time of his college savings fund,” Warniment wrote.
The push for more personal finance classes in the state’s public schools is not new. During the 2021 legislative session, New Mexico lawmakers considered a bill that would have required high school students to earn a half-credit in math through a financial class.
The measure didn’t pass.
Baldonado, who previously taught economics at a local charter school, said adding a half-credit to math requirements would have created a headache for school counselors trying to ensure seniors were able to graduate.
“It makes more sense to put it in social sciences,” he said. “Let’s tie it to economics; let’s show how personal finance and economics go hand in hand and what it means to the student.”
Think New Mexico’s recommendations for financial literacy lessons draw inspiration from states like Colorado that already have taken steps to include the topic in social studies courses. According to the organization’s website, 21 states have some type of financial literacy requirement for public school students.
Tim Ranzetta, who co-founded the national financial literacy organization Next Gen Personal Finance, said Think New Mexico’s proposal could be a “very logical next step” to getting stand-alone personal financial courses into public schools. But, he added, it should not be a stopping point.
“Research finds that about two-thirds of the time, when it’s embedded in another course, it’s not taught,” Ranzetta said of financial literacy. “There is so much content, it’s a challenging course to teach.”
Access to financial literacy classes varies across the United States. One in 5 students nationwide has access to some type of class, Ranzetta said, but the number narrows when it comes to schools with fewer white students.
Baldonado said he is hopeful that if the group’s suggestions receive approval from the Public Education Department, teachers can dive into what he called a wide variety of free online teaching materials on the subject matter.
“We can make this happen,” he said. “We’re not re-creating anything. We’re not adding additional burdens. Ultimately, we’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s rethink the economics course, which is already a graduation requirement, and maybe let’s do half economics, half personal finance.’ ”