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Wright Lindsey Jennings

Patrick Wilson


Patrick Wilson

This article was published in Little Rock Soiree, March 1, 2024, written by Ashton Ray.

Photography by Jason Masters for Little Rock Soiree.

Teaching young people in Arkansas about economics is a family tradition for Patrick Wilson.

“My grandfather, Pat Wilson, was one of the early leaders who helped with the Arkansas Council on Economic Education (now known as Economics Arkansas) back in 1962 with some of the other titans of Arkansas business,” he says.

Like his father before him, Wilson’s father became involved with Economics Arkansas as well.

“Coming from a banking family, economic education has always been very important to us,” Wilson says. “We were all encouraged when we were in college, even if we were pursuing different fields, to take accounting and economics classes for a well-rounded education.”

Wilson, an attorney at Wright Lindsey Jennings, continues the family legacy by serving as the central Arkansas fundraising committee chair for Economics Arkansas. Following in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, he has instilled the importance of financial literacy in his children, too.

Not every family, however, carries such a rich history of economic education. Economics Arkansas aims to fill in the gap for students who don’t have the financial guidance and family heritage Wilson has.

Economics Arkansas is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, educational organization founded in 1962 by Dr. Arch Ford to promote economic literacy in Arkansas.

“As the story goes, after his sophomore year at the University of Arkansas, after taking an economics course, Joe Ford asked his dad, ‘Why wait until college for economic education?’” executive director Kathleen Lawson says. “Joe’s dad, Dr. Arch Ford, was the commissioner of the state department of education at the time, and he was a man of action. He worked with a group of businessmen and bankers to form what was formerly known as the Arkansas Council for Economic Education and appointed Bessie B. Moore to serve as our organization’s first executive director.”

Economics Arkansas trains pre-K through 12th grade teachers on how to incorporate economic and personal finance principles into their classroom curriculum.

“That’s one of the real values of what Economics Arkansas does — is that we have the materials ready,” Wilson says. “We don’t just send them a letter saying, ‘Congrats, you’re a part of Economics Arkansas, now go teach it.’ We provide them with all the materials, and it’s an easy, step-by-step guide on how they can integrate those quickly into their curriculum.”

“We receive such positive feedback from educators who see light bulbs turning on when they provide engaging activities in their classroom,” associate director Marsha Masters says. “Our goal is to reach more and more of our state’s teachers and students to provide resources for life.”

And teachers recognize the effort.

“Economics Arkansas has literally been a lifeline as I began teaching economics. I have repeatedly pulled from the resources to develop my curriculum,” Joe T. Robinson High School teacher Lyndra Romack says. “The professional developments offered me the opportunity to expand both my knowledge and access to new resources. I am so grateful for their encouragement as I began this journey.”

Economics Arkansas is associated with a network of affiliated councils and collaborates with six university-based Centers for Economic Education. It also extends its resources through the Polly M. Jackson Master Economics Teachers (MET) program. These partnerships allow the organization to meet the needs of teachers by providing economic education training, materials and curriculum for Arkansas schools.

MET certifies outstanding economic educators as METs. Participants in this choice initiative provide training in economics and personal finance to other teachers across the state.

In its view of the importance of economic education, the organization draws from the National Association of Economic Educators’ list of six ways economic education provides students with a foundation for personal success and contributes to the success of the community and nation.

First, it teaches that benefit/cost analysis should be an integral part of how decisions are made. Secondly, it demonstrates that taking advantage of school and education to develop one’s human capital is essential to setting and reaching goals in life. Third, it teaches students about the prices we pay and what determines those prices.

Students also learn the role of government in a market economy and that not everyone agrees on how the government should intervene. Fifth, students study how people earn, use and manage money. Finally, students learn about the global economy they live in and the principle of exchange.

“We really try to emphasize that economic concepts and financial literacy cross several disciplines and subject areas,” Wilson says.

“Economics is the science of decision making,” Masters says. “Every decision has benefits and costs. If we pause to weigh those before deciding, we make more informed decisions. Our goal at Economics Arkansas is to equip students to be prepared for their futures. Research shows that it is never too early to start, so our goal is to provide resources for children as young as pre-K. Those connections are made through children’s literature, guest speakers, family financial literacy events and student-focused simulations and competitions.”

One of the most popular simulations is The Stock Market Game. Arkansas leads the nation in the number of students per capita participating in the student investment simulation. Students in grades 4-12 work in small teams to invest a $100,000 virtual portfolio in the live market. This program teaches students about publicly traded companies, the differences between stocks, bonds and mutual funds and how everyday events affect the market.

But the students aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of this program.

“Ninety-four percent of The Stock Market Game advisors in Arkansas increased their personal understanding and knowledge of investing as a result of this program,” Lawson says. “Since 1999, we have reached nearly 250,000 students in Arkansas with this competition alone.”

“The Stock Market Game is excellent, and it does a great job of showing students how they can invest, gain knowledge and have fun with it, but also really grow their money and gain wealth,” Wilson says.

The organization has several other competitions and simulations for all ages, including the $10 challenge where students use their own money to launch a new business venture. Competing students submit a form tracking their finances throughout the competition.

Grades 9-12 can participate in the Arkansas Economics Challenge, a state-level competition where students demonstrate their knowledge of micro- and macroeconomics as well as the global economy.

The Arkansas Personal Finance Challenge takes teams of three or four students who review a fictitious case study of a family’s financial situation, then work together to present suggestions for the family.

The competitions aren’t just for high school students. Economics Arkansas is creating sound economic foundations in elementary schools as well.

“Economics Arkansas always provides engaging content for teaching economic concepts to my students, and in ways that will be easy for them to understand,” Southwood Elementary teacher Elizabeth Wall says.

Econ Games is a competitive event for elementary students consisting of three fast-paced rounds. Teams apply their economic and personal finance knowledge by creating and participating in an assembly line, taking a critical thinking test and presenting an idea that solves a real-world problem.

Creativity and ingenuity are fostered through the Picturing Econ Art Competition where students illustrate their understanding of economic concepts and through programs like Pitch It and Y.E.S. competitions where students pitch new business ideas in front of a panel of judges.

Even students as young as pre-K and kindergarten can begin applying basic financial principles.

“The teachers have materials that can integrate economic concepts early, like scarcity theory,” Wilson says. “Having to make choices is a basic economic concept, and teachers can get across to pre-K and kindergarten concepts like, ‘You can eat this one piece of candy now or wait and have five pieces of candy later.’ They can start teaching those concepts right away and build that knowledge.”

“Economic education teaches us that we have to make choices, that scarcity exists and that we can’t have everything we want,” Lawson says, “It’s the science of decision-making, an analytical framework to be more productive, intentional and engaged citizens, knowledgeable consumers, wise investors and informed voters.”

Funding for the organization comes from a mix of public and private dollars, including government grants and sponsorships from individuals and corporations. Fundraising events like the Trade Game and Think Inside the Box give attendees a firsthand look at what students are learning from the program. The Trade Game gives attendees a bag of items and allows them to trade with others to demonstrate the value of voluntary trade. Think Inside the Box encourages attendees to hone their entrepreneurial skills as they present a product of their design using limited materials to a panel of guest judges.

Economics Arkansas was named Bank of America Arkansas’ 2023 Neighborhood Champions Grant Recipient, awarding them $50,000 in flexible spending over two years. Lawson says the group plans to use the money to build a custom workshop registration system and database to reduce manual data entry so staff members can focus more on direct programming.

This system will allow teacher participants to manage a personal profile, download professional development records and streamline the process of registering, evaluating and documenting their attendance at training.

“The ability to generate reports and analyses about program participation, member demographics, program evaluations and other key metrics will aid in assessing our effectiveness, identifying areas of improvement or potential growth and making data-driven decisions,” Lawson says.

One of Economics Arkansas’ central fundraisers is The LIFE (Leadership in Free Enterprise) Awards Luncheon, set for March 27 at the DoubleTree Hotel. The committee Wilson chairs selects the event’s honoree, and this year will recognize Sissy Jones of Sissy’s Log Cabin.

“She’s put forth a great family legacy of small business that’s now turned into a much bigger business. They’re doing great things that need to be honored,” Wilson says. “We’ll also be honoring Charles Morgan and First Security Bank as well for the value that they’ve added to economic education in Arkansas.”

“The LIFE Award recognizes exceptional individuals and families whose entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen have improved the lives of others,” Lawson says. “The award honors those who have contributed to and promoted success in the free enterprise system.”

Wilson and Lawson recognize the many changes to education that occur year to year are dependent upon governmental standards and regulations, but say they will continue to fight for economic education to stay a fundamental part of student learning.

“Going forward, one thing we have been mindful of and need to continue to think about is how we get the message across that financial literacy and basic economic education is important enough to have as part of the main curriculum,” Wilson says.

“Our goal is to continue to strive toward serving every school district in the state while remaining mindful of trends in education,” Lawson says. “We need to continue to find innovative ways to ensure economic education remains an integral part of pre-K through 12th grade education.”