Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – and computer science

The President’s 2017 budget request to Congress – a political document to its core – outlines an aspirational strategy for new STEM education funding that in another era without Congressional budget caps might have had a better chance.

One can imagine the heady days in 1965 when a new aspirational education concept came into being. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant (later named for its father, Sen. Claiborne Pell) changed the game for millions of students thanks to the first Higher Education Act. Big things and big budgets were possible then.

Fast forward to the new budget proposal.

A new Computer Science for All initiative is envisioned. The goal is giving every student from preschool to high school a chance, the motivation and the resources to learn computer science. Computer science would incorporate hands-on learning, programming and coding courses, and other computational and math skills appropriate to the grade level.

It’s hard to argue with the reasoning or the need. Computer science truly is a new “basic science” as the Administration claims. It’s a skill that’s needed across the board – in industry, education and at home. Global competition demands it.

At the same time in this country, estimates are that only one quarter of schools offer computer science courses with programming and coding instruction. Twenty-two states do not allow computer science courses to count towards high school graduation. And all the while, other nations and our biggest global competitors are building computer science into curricula for all their students.

The Computer Science for All proposal calls for $4 billion in mandatory (read automatic) spending by the Education Department to be available to schools over three years. Another $100 million in discretionary (read budget cap constrained) funding is sought for competitive grants to school districts to develop model programs with a particular focus on teaching underrepresented students. The National Science Foundation would also invest to continue higher level training efforts and to develop more computer science teachers.

Fortunately, the intellectual push for more computer science courses can and does continue at local levels as parents and educators move in their own jurisdictional settings to make change. But a $4 billion infusion would certainly speed the process. So will it happen this year? I’m not betting my Pell Grant on it.

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