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Expect better savvy in next generation

Assuming there's an economy left by the time they hit the work force, will today's high schoolers be any better able to protect it than we were?

With retirement accounts tanking and the possibility of having to rely on today's students to pay for our Metamucil, their financial education is no small consideration.

Fortunately, if our generation somehow escapes the current crisis without blowing up the financial landscape, the kids may be all right.

"They're going to be a lot more savvy than we were; that's for sure," said Kathy Heinle, supervisor of career and technical education for the Buffalo Public Schools.

Unlike generations that got little financial education, today's students are immersed in it. The day after the House defeated the bailout bill and the Dow plunged a record 777 points, Bennett High School department head David Hampton walked his Economic History IV class through the day's developments and the plight of 401(k) investors who lost thousands of dollars overnight.

"Nobody stole it. It's the market," Hampton said.

Like much of the country at that point, students weren't enamored of the bailout. Why not?

"We would have had to pay more taxes," said Jacquese Mayfield, 16.

He rejected my argument that the rescue was necessary to restore the portfolios of the same folks livid about forking over $700 billion.

"It's not guaranteed that the stock market will go back up," Mayfield responded.

That already puts Mayfield ahead of millions who seem shocked whenever a bubble bursts -- such as the one that left homebuyers stuck with mortgages they can't afford.

Do today's homeowners-in-training expect to ever be in a similar pickle?

"That would be dumb, to overspend on something that you know you don't have enough money for," said Bennett senior David Brown, 18.

It seems he got the lesson from a class that all Buffalo high school seniors take. And the education doesn't stop there. The district uses the four-year National Academy of Finance program to teach about stocks, bonds, risk-and-reward and other economic essentials. High schools such as Bennett, South Park and East employ the Virtual Entrepreneurship Program, and McKinley participates in The Buffalo News' stock market game.

"We try to give them as much financial literacy and information on the business world as we can," Heinle said.

That's critical because it's clear now that our old civics classes were not enough.

The funniest part of this -- if you like black humor -- is listening to bailout opponents say they won't vote for a plan that punishes "innocent" taxpayers.

There are very few innocents in this. Anybody who voted for a politician who advocated a laissez faire, hands-off approach -- or worse yet, did not vote at all -- has red ink on their hands. Washington looked the other way because, by commission or omission, that's what the public allowed it to do.

Now we'll pay. We'll pay as taxpayers if a modified bailout passes both houses, or we'll pay as investors, borrowers, laid-off workers and other victims of a failing economy if it doesn't.

The good news is that the next generation may not be so complicit.

Granted, we've always had civics classes, and that hasn't done us much good when it comes to picking a government.

But now, with those courses supplemented by economics classes, the next generation may see more clearly than we did the connection between Pennsylvania Avenue on one hand, and Wall Street and Main Street on the other.

e-mail: rwatson@buffnews.com

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