Arkansas lawmakers have introduced a bill that would increase the academic importance of vocational classes for high school students while amending a computer science course requirement that was a landmark education initiative of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration.
More: Read the bill here.
Senate Bill 369, called an Act Concerning Career and Technical Education, would amend the 2021 Computer Science Education Advancement Act, a bill that made Arkansas one of the few states in the country that required at least one computer science credit for high school graduation. That bill was an extension of 2015 legislation that required every high school to offer a computer science class.
SB369 would require students to earn at least one credit in a career and technical course “with at least 50% of the content being in computer science before the student graduates,” the bill said. It calls for the Arkansas Department of Education to designate at least four approved courses that fit this new format.
The Senate passed the bill Thursday and referred it to the House Education Committee.
Sponsors said it does not detract from Hutchinson’s computer literacy initiatives, which received broad bipartisan support and garnered national recognition during the former governor’s tenure as chair of the National Governors Association. Last summer, 50 governors signed a computer science education compact at a National Governors Association meeting under Hutchinson’s leadership.
In almost a decade, the number of Arkansas computer science students increased 770%, according to the National Governors Association.
Lawmakers said SB369 would bolster computer training with courses that are more tailored to specific industries rather than classes teaching general computing skills.
“The requirement for every student to take that [computer science classes] might not still be there, but the reality is in almost every single industry there is technology and digital literacy,” Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, a SB369 sponsor, told Arkansas Business. “It is just not going to be the only focus. Not everyone will be a computer programmer or a cyber security expert.”
“We need that career pathway, but the goal is to make sure computer literacy is embedded [in career and technical education classes],” the senator said. “We need to make sure all of our students that, while they can use their phones, they also understand what the technical needs in those industries are — in health care or transportation or whatever it is.”
English said the sponsors, who also include Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers, and Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, have not yet crystallized the curriculum for the new career and technical education, or CTE, classes.
The state’s Department of Education would develop the courses. There would be a computer science pathway for students who want to focus in that area, English said.
Dotson, the act’s primary sponsor, said it “was developed with the input of schools to make career technical education as robust for our students as possible while removing barriers to student success that currently exist.”
The bill's text says it aims to “level the playing field for students who choose a career and technical education pathway by ensuring their accomplishments within a career and technical education pathway are deemed just as significant as those achieved by college-bound students who graduate high school with honors."
That means that CTE classes with more rigor or advanced requirements could be weighted, similar to credits students receive for advanced placement courses, which often can be transferred to universities for college credit. CTE includes sectors ranging from construction and manufacturing to agriculture and sales.
ADE’s Division of Elementary and Secondary Education reviews courses to be offered for weighted credit. Approval is contingent on a class meeting or exceeding the standards of a comparable advanced placement class or exceed the curriculum standards for a non-weighted course, Kimberly Mundell, an ADE spokesperson, said via email to Arkansas Business.
Previously: Arkansas high schools saw enrollment in computer science courses nearly double in fall 2022.
“The proposed legislation focuses on career pathways instead of an individual course and allows the division to identify those pathways that lead to high value industry certifications,” Mundell said. “The Division would distinguish those courses within the pathways as those that provide rigorous learning experiences and credentials that align with the rationale for awarding weighted credit.”
The legislation complements a component of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ LEARNS Act, a sweeping education reform bill that was signed into law earlier in March. LEARNS stipulates the creation of a dual diploma program in all high schools where students can choose different curriculum paths depending on post-graduation plans.
Beck, another sponsor, said the legislation would encourage students to continue education after high school or that the classes would provide students with enough skills to land a technical job after graduation.
“What I like about this bill is that it segues very nicely with the dual path in Arkansas LEARNS,” Beck said. “The other attraction for it is that it actually now is allowing students to take more of a path that might be into a community college where they can continue into technical training.”