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Enhanced financial literacy curriculum, supported by local students, faces uncertain future

Rhinelander High School teacher Pat Kubeny testifies before the Assembly Education Committee.
Wisconsin Eye
Rhinelander High School teacher Pat Kubeny testifies before the Assembly Education Committee.

A teacher and high school students from Rhinelander are among the loudest supporters of a proposed state law to require more financial literacy education.

Several state organizations say it’s a worthy cause, but the mandate would be too difficult for many local schools to put into place.

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

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

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

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

The semester-long class is a requirement for graduation at Rhinelander, but not every school requires a class in financial literacy.

A new bill would change that. It would mandate a full year of financial literacy education for graduation from high school in Wisconsin. Kubeny supports the measure.

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

But education organizations are lining up to oppose the bill.

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

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

He said requiring a separate finance class is a well-intended move. But it’s yet another mandate that would strain the resources of schools and take away local decision-making.

“Even though I’m not there running a school district now, if I had had this brought in, I can guarantee there would have been a reduction in elective offerings, whether it was outright cuts or it’s a course that, you know what, we can’t do that every year now,” Niehaus said.

Many schools, especially small Northwoods districts, don’t even employ a dedicated business education teacher.

“As well-intended as all of these things are, there’s only so much time and room in the day,” said Niehaus. “We really feel local school boards should have the control as to what some of these offerings are going to be and how they’re going to happen based on who they are as individual schools.”

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

The bill is awaiting action in the legislature.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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