Overhaul of Arkansas’ computer science requirement for high school students voted down

Bill’s opponents say it dilutes a key education component

FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.

A bill to overhaul Arkansas' computer science requirement for high school students was defeated in committee Tuesday.

Senate Bill 369 proposed giving more flexibility to students in career and technical education programs on how they can fulfill the state-mandated computer science requirement needed for graduation. Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, the bill's sponsor, said the current computer science requirement is burdensome for students in a career and technical education program.

If approved, the bill would have allowed students to take a "computer science-related" course that is more applicable to their career path.

"Really, at the end of the day this bill is about options and opportunities for students," Dotson said.

The bill also would require the Department of Education to review career and technical education courses for weighted credit. Students who receive a platinum, gold, silver or bronze credential through Act WorkKeys -- a test used for career-oriented programs -- could transfer their credits to an institution of higher education.

But the bill failed after pushback from computer science educators and business representatives who said it would water down Arkansas' computer science requirement. All those who testified at Tuesday's hearing spoke against the bill, saying computer science classes were not just about preparing students for a career but rather teaching them other problem-solving skills or how to grapple with emerging artificial intelligence technology.

"Computer science is not a career pathway, it's part of every single aspect of our world," said Lee Watson, CEO of the Forge Institute, a cybersecurity firm. "How could we let a student graduate high school without access to this basic education? If we do we're not preparing them for the world which they are entering."

Randy Zook, CEO of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, also spoke against the bill, saying it would water down the state's talent pool for coders and cybersecurity specialists.

"It would be just a real loss in momentum to back away from our current requirement," Zook said.

Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, said he worried the bill would hurt Arkansas' standing as a national leader in computer science education.

"I think what we are doing with [career technical education] 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," Wing said. "Any time Arkansas does something educationally that takes us to the top heap in the nation, I think that's something we want to protect with everything that we can."

Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, said critiques of the bill presented a false choice by pitting career technical education against computer science courses.

Instead, Beck said the bill would allow the Department of Education to develop computer science classes that are more applicable to students in career technical education programs.

"We're not watering anything down. We are taking something and pinpointing it," Beck said.

In 2021, the Legislature approved a law requiring high school students to earn at least one credit in a computer science class before they can graduate.

Also Tuesday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 378 that would amend the 2021 law so public high schools would not be required to hire a computer science teacher.

While the bill passed the Senate without much opposition earlier this month, the House Education Committee voted the bill down on a split voice vote Tuesday.

Dotson said he has a similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 470, that is on the agenda for the Senate Education Committee today.

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