Computer science education push returns to Iowa statehouse

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In what is likely his last Condition of the State address, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad pushed Tuesday for the state’s schools to embrace more teaching of computer science.

“All students need to learn how computers operate because it is fundamental to life and work today,” Branstad said. “Computer science will provide students a chance to join one of the fastest-growing and best-paying fields.”

Last year, an effort at the statehouse moved to require Iowa schools to provide the coursework. That legislation ultimately failed to make it out of the Iowa Senate.

This year, however, the governor is only seeking legislation that would encourage more Iowa schools to adopt the curriculum, said Linda Fandel, the governor’s special assistant for education.

“The big difference this year is we want to encourage school districts to build on this work they’ve already started rather than require them to do it,” Fandel said.

The aim is to have coursework in place by the 2019-2020 school year, she said.

Branstad’s proposal would have:

  • High schools offer at least one “high quality” computer science course.
  • Middle schools provide exploratory computer science curriculum.
  • Elementary schools provide introductory computer science lessons.

He’s also suggested putting money behind the proposal, including a $500,000 incentive fund that would help offset the costs of teacher training. Additional money would go to support offerings of online classes and pay for a computer science consultant with the state Department of Education.

The legislation would also call for the formation of an advisory group to look at how high school computer science courses could count as math credits for graduation.

An Iowa Department of Education survey estimates that 69 percent of the state’s school districts offer at least one computer science class to high school students. Fifty-seven percent of districts that don’t offer one said they plan to start one in the 2017-2018 school year.

Fandel, Branstad and other supporters have linked increasing computer science coursework to building up Iowa’s talent pipeline and preparing students for a future that requires high tech skills.

Talk of having a computer science requirement surfaced in 2015.

In June 2015, a committee with the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council first recommended Iowa require high school students take a computer science class to graduate. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is now on track to become Iowa’s chief executive, also co-chairs the STEM Council.

The same committee later also suggested those classes should be considered part of core curriculum and not replace any other class.

Last year, the Iowa Department of Education proposed legislation that would push the computer science requirement ahead. The bill never made it out of the Iowa Senate, however.

Some Iowa school officials had previously expressed concerns that such legislation would become an unfunded mandate, requiring them to stretch limited resources across a new area.

The chances of the legislation passing this year has yet to be seen, especially in a year where the makeup of Iowa’s legislature has shifted. Republicans now hold control of both legislative chambers and the executive branch.

Republican lawmakers have also already laid out priorities, such as altering Iowa’s collective bargaining process, and legislators need to make about $100 million in budget cuts.

Still, Branstad’s proposed budget sets aside the $500,000 for the incentive fund. It also sets aside $1 million for a STEM internship program, a priority for the Technology Association of Iowa.

Mark Joyce, who handles government relations for the Technology Association of Iowa, said those high-profile issues present a challenge to make sure items like computer science and STEM internship funding are not “lost in the noise.”

Fandel, however, said she’s confident lawmakers will give the computer science proposal “fair consideration.”

Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at mpatane@clayandmilk.com.