Education

Florida Senate considers computer coding as a foreign language for high school students

Jacqueline Nguyen, 16, grins after successfully solving a coding sequence during an intensive computer skills summer immersion program for girls, presented by Florida International University's School of Computing and Information Sciences and Girls Who Code.
Jacqueline Nguyen, 16, grins after successfully solving a coding sequence during an intensive computer skills summer immersion program for girls, presented by Florida International University's School of Computing and Information Sciences and Girls Who Code. MIAMI HERALD FILE

A controversial plan from a Broward County Democrat to require high schools to offer computer coding courses and let students count them toward foreign language requirements was heralded Thursday as “novel,” “innovative” and “forward-thinking.”

But some members of the Florida Senate, as well as some local school district administrators, question how costly the proposal could be and how districts would pay for it when they are already strapped for digital resources.

Despite not knowing the myriad expenses that might come with implementing the proposal, Senate Bill 468 by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, passed the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee on Thursday by an 8-2 vote.

“We’re supposed to be transformative with education,” said Ring, a former Yahoo executive. “We’re trying ... to recognize the reality of the world and give our kids a leg up.”

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the plan screams “unfunded mandate” because of the course software, computers and specialized teachers and training that would be necessary to meet the bill’s requirements.

“I’m concerned that we’re going to take an approach that is forward-thinking and then fail in implementation,” Detert said.

Ring said the financial details would be handled in the education budget committee, which is the bill’s next stop. That panel is led by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who also supported Ring’s bill Thursday and offered two amendments on Ring’s behalf.

South Florida Democrats Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay and Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth voted against the proposal. Bullard cited the “severe unintended consequences” the legislation poses — similar to when lawmakers endorsed computer-based testing but schools lacked enough computers and ran into issues.

“It sings of the same problems we faced back then,” Bullard said. He also raised concerns that the plan could further disadvantage minority students and those who live in poorer areas, which already can’t afford decent computer classrooms, like his district in south Miami-Dade.

Ring spent most of Thursday’s hearing on the defensive, trying to correct what he said was a general misunderstanding about what the bill would do. He repeatedly emphasized computer coding would be another “option” for students, “not a requirement.”

“We’re not replacing foreign language; we’re saying computer language should be in the language disciplines,” Ring said.

We’re trying ... to recognize the reality of the world and give our kids a leg up.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate

But while the classes would be optional for students, there’s disagreement over whether schools would have the choice whether to even offer them. The bill states: “High schools must provide students opportunities to take computer coding courses of sufficient rigor.”

“The intent is it’s an option,” Ring told reporters after the meeting. “If we have to further clarify it, we will.”

House K-12 Subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Adkins, a Republican representative from Fernandina Beach, filed a companion bill late Thursday that mirrors Ring’s amended plan. If it’s enacted, school districts would have until January 2017 to develop their curriculum.

The proposal might be easier to implement in some districts than others.

Though Miami-Dade has among the most computers per student in South Florida — the district has one computer for every three students compared with one for every five students in Broward — mandating computer coding as an alternative to foreign language would still require a significant investment, Miami-Dade County schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.

That investment would come on top of $200 million spent on technology after voters passed a massive bond issue in 2012. 

“We are better prepared than most on the basis of our recent investment,” Carvalho said.

He added that there should be room for both traditional foreign languages and computer coding skills in high school education.

“We cannot approach the importance of computer science and foreign language as an either-or proposition,” Carvalho said. “I absolutely disagree with the proposition that computer coding is an equal substitute — an equal and necessary substitute — for foreign language.”

Carvalho pointed to research that cites long-term advantages, both in school and the workplace, that come with learning another language.

“Based on both educational, intellectual development, and emotional development — as well as long-term economic development in an increasingly bilingual and biliterate community — computer coding is not a trade-off,” Carvalho said.

Republicans on the Senate committee joined Ring in emphasizing the legislation would better prepare students for a modern workforce, by teaching them to be conversant in the “global language” of computer coding.

“If we simply set the goal post as a degree, then we fail in our responsibilities. The ultimate goal post is a job, is a career,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg said.

Clemens said he disagrees with that philosophy, which was one of the reasons he voted against the bill.

“It goes back to why we provide an education in the first place,” he said. “It isn’t so kids can get a job; it’s so they can become a well-rounded member of society. ... If we’re focusing on getting our kids a certain type of job, it’s a disservice.”

One amendment approved Thursday requires Florida’s state colleges and public universities to honor computer coding courses toward foreign language requirements. For students applying to schools out-of-state, Ring suggested students could choose to take two years of a traditional foreign language and two years of coding.

Another amendment clarified previous language that initially said students pursuing a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship would have to earn at least two credits in computer coding in order to be eligible to apply. The revised wording makes clear computer coding is an optional alternative to the foreign language requirement of the scholarship.

Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.

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