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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Florida senators support, scrutinize plan to offer computer coding as foreign language



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 also have major concerns that it would place a costly mandate on school districts that have strapped digital resources as it is.

Despite the myriad unknown expenses that would come with implementing the proposal, Senate Bill 468 -- by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- earned favor from the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee on Thursday by an 8-2 vote.

Fellow South Florida Democrats Dwight Bullard, of Cutler Bay, and Jeff Clemens, of Lake Worth, voted against it.

Bullard cited the "severe unintended consequences" the legislation poses, similar to when lawmakers endorsed computer-based testing but schools lacked the capabilities and ran into problems, such as last spring's debut of the Florida Standards Assessments.

"It sings of the same problems we faced back then," Bullard said, also raising concerns that the plan could further disadvantage minority students and those who live in poorer districts, which already can't afford decent computer classrooms.

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

"We’re not replacing foreign language; we’re saying computer language should be in the language disciplines," said Ring, a former Yahoo executive.

But while the classes would be optional for students to take, schools wouldn't have the choice of whether to offer them, as the bill is written. It 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."

There is no House companion yet, a necessity for the proposal to have a chance at becoming law. If it's enacted, school districts would have until January 2017 to develop a curriculum plan.

Republicans on the 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 goalpost 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."

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, asked Ring about the costs necessary to implement the bill, including course software, computers for students and specialized teachers. 

"This just screams unfunded mandate and I’m concerned that we’re going to take an approach that is forward thinking and then fail in implementation," Detert said.

Ring and his supporters on the committee said that 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 supported Ring's bill Thursday and offered two amendments on Ring's behalf.

"Somewhere along the line, we have to be upfront on the impact it's going to have," Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said.

One of the amendments 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.

[Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2015 12:25pm]


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