House panel dismisses bill that opponents argue would undo state’s computer science progress

By: - March 28, 2023 5:27 pm

Arkansas Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) was the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 369. This shows him testifying on another bill in the Senate earlier this month. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

Lawmakers rejected a bill concerning career and technical education on Tuesday amid concerns that the legislation eliminated a requirement for students to take a computer science course to graduate high school. 

Sen. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville) told the House Education Committee Senate Bill 369 is the result of conversations with constituents regarding workforce education and some of the barriers their students were facing when choosing to pursue career and technical education (CTE) pathways.

“This bill is about options and opportunities for students,” Dotson said. “The goal with the bill is to ensure that our career and technical education students’ achievements are deemed just as significant as our college-bound students.” 

Dotson said the bill does three main things — it requires the Division of Career and Technical Education to review new and existing CTE pathways for weighted credit, and requires credentials received from the ACT WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate to be used by an institution of higher education as transcribable credit toward the attainment of a postsecondary degree. 

SB 369 also proposes requiring public high school students to take a CTE course with at least 50% of the content being in computer science in order to graduate.

The original bill, filed on Mar. 6, replaced a graduation requirement to take a computer science course — which went into effect in the 2022-2023 school year — with a requirement to take a CTE course. 

Rep. Carlton Wing (R-North Little Rock)
Rep. Carlton Wing (R-North Little Rock)
John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate

The amended bill proposes that students complete a computer science course or computer science-related career and technical education course to graduate. Dotson said this allows flexibility for students to still take a computer science class as part of the proposed CTE course requirement.

While committee members like Rep. Carlton Wing (R-North Little Rock) said they supported expanding career and technical education opportunities, he and other lawmakers also said they were concerned at doing so at the cost of losing advancements the state has made in computer science education. 

“Arkansas is number one in computer science education, and I like being number one and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that,” Wing said. “I love career [and] technical education. I think what we’re doing with CTE is also very important and fundamental to our next generation. I just don’t want to see it come at the expense of our computer science courses.”

Dotson argued computer science is embedded in classes taken by K-8 students, so “exposure to these types of courses in Arkansas schools is extremely high.”

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson made computer science a major focus of his eight-year administration. Arkansas became the first state to require all public high schools teach computer science after Hutchinson signed Act 187 into law in 2015. 

The Computer Science Education Advancement Act of 2021 requires high school students to complete a computer science course to graduate. The requirement went into effect this school year, while a requirement that school districts employ a computer science teacher at each high school would start in the 2023-2024 school year.

“Loss of momentum”

Another bill — SB 378, sponsored by Russellville Republican Sen. Breanne Davis — would lift the mandate that each high school employ a computer science teacher. Davis told the Senate Tuesday afternoon that districts can continue using Virtual Arkansas, a state virtual school, or share a computer science teacher with other districts if they choose.

While SB 378 received unanimous support from all 34 lawmakers present in the Senate Tuesday, Dotson’s SB 369 faced pushback in the House Education Committee meeting. Five people spoke against the legislation, including Anthony Owen, former director of the state’s computer science initiative.

Owen argued the bill would make it harder for students in CTE courses to get weighted credit than non-CTE courses by requiring students to take and pass an industry certification aligned to that pathway. Additionally, the bill doesn’t mandate that schools have to pay for the certifications, which, Owen said, could disproportionately affect poor students and school districts.

The bill will reduce computer science opportunities in Arkansas, he said, because it doesn’t require schools to provide those opportunities. 

“Just because an item’s listed on a menu at a restaurant doesn’t mean anything if there’s not ingredients or a chef to cook it,” Owen said. “We’re taking away the ingredients and the chef.” 

Randy Zook, president and CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas, also voiced his opposition to the bill, saying “it would be just a real loss of momentum to back away from our current requirement.”

“From the standpoint of employers who are desperate for talent in nearly every sector of the economy, 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,” Zook said. 

SB 369 failed on a split voice vote.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.