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Update: Senate Panel Advances Similar Version of Computer Science Bill

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Update: The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday advanced a similar version of the bill, keeping the proposal alive.

Senate Bill 470 differs from the defeated version in that it does not contain language calling for computer science to be at least 50% of the required course’s content. Instead, it says the state Department of Education’s Division of Career and Technical Education shall establish the minimum criteria.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce said it’s still against the proposal. Several speakers from Tuesday’s House Education Committee hearing returned to the Capitol to oppose SB470, reiterating their position that it will cost the state jobs and hinder economic growth. 

“We are stepping backwards while other states around us are stepping forward,” Anthony Owen, who designed the computer science requirement, told the Senate panel.

James Hendren, co-founder and chair of The Venture Center in Little Rock, linked the state’s emphasis on computer science to its renewed growth in manufacturing, saying it’s “bringing us up from the bottom, giving us good jobs and high-paying jobs.” He warned that softening that emphasis could have broader consequences for the state’s economy. 

“If we want to see all these manufacturing jobs gone in 20 years, pass this bill,” he said.

The bill’s supporters included committee member Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville. She and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, said the bill would bring more flexibility to the computer training requirement and expose students to more career pathways. 

“If we’re for this bill, we’re not opposed to computer science … we want to see our kids have options and we want them to keep up in the world that we live in,” Davis said.

Dotson said the bill aims to make the computer science requirement “relevant” within specific industries. 

Original story: A House panel on Tuesday voted against a bill that would amend the state’s computer science requirement after hearing testimony that it would shrink the state’s tech talent pipeline and diminish Arkansas’ standing as a leader in computer science education. 

Business leaders and cyber experts told the House Education Committee that Senate Bill 369, sponsored by Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, would be a step backwards in the years-long push to develop that pipeline. The legislation would require students to earn at least one credit in a career and technical course with at least 50% of the content in computer science.

Dotson said the bill would augment computer training with courses that are more tailored to specific industries, which would help open career pathways for students. Opponents argued that it would water down a requirement that’s become essential as the economy evolves and industries become increasingly reliant on technology.

Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, was among those who spoke against the bill.

“We are constrained today by the lack of talent and this would be a terrible misdirection of efforts to create talented, prepared, competitive employees for every business in the state,” he said. “We need to step on the gas, if anything, in the area of computer science to prepare our young people for competitive opportunities in a global economy that is only becoming more complex by the day, if not by the hour.”

Anthony Owen, the architect of former Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s landmark education initiative, said it already provides more flexibility for students than many realize. He said there are over 55 courses that count toward the requirement for computer science, from programming to robotics to computer engineering. The course is also allowed to stand in as a math requirement and science requirement. 

Lee Watson, CEO of the nonprofit Forge Institute, told the panel that the bill presumes a narrow application of computer science skills.

“It’s not just a coding class … We don’t take this class just to learn how to write a program or learn JavaScript,” he said. “It teaches problem solving. It teaches how digital technologies work.”

He continued: “It’s about equipping future citizens with a basic literacy to interact in a world where everything from the cars we drive to the machines that harvest crops or manufacture our widgets. Everything is a computer.”

Hutchinson signed a measure into law in 2015 that required every public high school to offer computer science. Since then, the number of computer science teachers across the state has grown from 50 to more than 800.

In 2021, Hutchinson signed a measure making computer science a graduation requirement. Arkansas is now one of seven states with such a requirement. Another 19 are considering it.

Meanwhile, competition for talent is only increasing. In the U.S., there are more than 700,000 job openings in cybersecurity, with that number expected to rise to 3.4 million as businesses and governments face growing risks from cybercriminals, according to the Forge Institute. 

“The pipeline is so critical,” Allison Nicholas, director of recruiting at Metova Inc. of Conway, told the House panel. “My competitors are Arkansas employers, but more specifically, they are nationwide and they’re international. They reach into our state all the time to recruit our talent.”

SB 369’s co-sponsors are Sen. Joshua Bryant, R-Rogers; Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge; and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock. 

A nearly identical version of the legislation, Senate Bill 470, goes before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.

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