BBA Council Endorses Civics Education and Financial Literacy Bills

Two important pieces of legislation with broad, bipartisan support are currently making their way through the Massachusetts Legislature, having passed the Senate last month. The bills, one that will incorporate civics education into public school curricula and one that would create standards for teaching financial literacy that could be deployed in schools throughout the Commonwealth, were both endorsed by the BBA Council at their April Meeting.

The BBA is proud to be able to voice its support as the legislation is taken up by the House!

Financial Literacy

Under Senate Bill 2374, An Act Relative to Financial Literacy in Schools, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would develop financial literacy standards that could then be adopted into existing school curricula. The Department would also be tasked with making resources publicly available, consulting with experts for insight into the best materials and best methods of instructions. The bill would further revive an advisory committee established in 2012 to create and oversee a pilot program related to financial literacy for students. That Committee will work in consultation with individuals with relevant experience, including bankruptcy attorneys, to develop and implement the standards.

There is a long history of support for, and active engagement in, financial literacy education here at the BBA. In 2005, the Joint Bankruptcy Court and BBA Task Force on Financial Literacy for Students released a report documenting the need for financial literacy education. As part of that report, the Task Force proposed a program for providing this crucial financial literacy education to public school students. That ultimately spearheaded the launch of the M. Ellen Carpenter Financial Literacy Program, now in its 13th year. To date, the program has reached over 6,200 students and engaged over 1,500 volunteer attorneys across the state. As part of the program, attorneys teach three classroom sessions: one on personal finances and budgeting, another on using credit and credit cards, and the third on financing large purchases. Then, some students are able to take a field trip to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, where they observe, and sometimes participate in, mock hearings.

The BBA is delighted to have offered this education to so many, and we stand ready to offer the expertise gleaned over the past 13 years to help expand that offering so that one day no students in the Commonwealth are denied an opportunity to learn invaluable skills that will help to ensure their future financial outlook.

Civics Education

Senate Bill 2375, An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement, requires that the Board of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ensure all public schools provide instructions in civics. The broad scope of that instruction tracks current statutory guidance on matters to be covered, including the constitutions of the U.S. and the Commonwealth, the Bill of Rights, and local history. However, it also expounds in more detail on what the Department should ensure any civics framework includes, specifically noting things like “the roles and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy, the development of media literacy skills…community diversity and the role it plays in the democratic process,” and “knowledge of the ways in which civic participation has been restricted throughout history.”

In addition, the bill requires every public school student to have the opportunity to participate in at least two student-led civics projects, including one that must be completed after the 8th grade and is a high school graduation requirement. The nature of the projects themselves is quite flexible; they can be class-wide, individual, or small group. In addition, the legislation expounds on a number of other initiatives, including “civics challenges” where students will be able to enter their projects into competition and “regional civic councils” to monitor the development of the curriculum and provide additional resources. Many of these are dependent on adequate funding, which is not specifically appropriated in the legislation, though it does call for the creation of a Civics Project Fund that would be funded by legislative appropriation and private sources (subject to certain restrictions).

This week, BBA President Mark Smith of Laredo & Smith LLP sent a letter to Chair William Galvin of the House Committee on Rules, where the bill currently sits, expressing our support. That letter cited recent, alarming research that documented the lack of understanding many Americans have about basic government processes and institutions. For example, one-in-five believed that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is returned to Congress for reconsideration. A lack of understanding of the function of our courts can make the judiciary susceptible to partisan attacks that undermine necessary faith in the judiciary as the third co-equal branch of government. Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter noted, in 2009, that the biggest threat to judicial independence is a “public majority unaware of the basic shape of the government.”

In the letter, President Smith urges passage of the measures and offers BBA support in development and implementation of an enhanced civics curriculum, noting:

The provision of civics education in public schools will ensure the next generation understands the role of all parts and functions of the government, sustaining confidence in the key institutions of a constitutional democracy, including the courts, the jury, and other critical aspects of our justice system.

The BBA is proud to support S.2375 and S.2374, and we hope the House will take the opportunity to empower the youth of Massachusetts to secure their best futures.

—Alexa Daniel
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association