TALLAHASSEE — Florida senators overwhelmingly approved a proposal Wednesday to allow high school students to count computer coding as a foreign language course, although questions linger about whether the two subjects should be considered one and the same.
The Senate passed Sen. Jeremy Ring's bill (SB 468) by a 35-5 vote.
"With this bill, we're putting a stamp on it: Florida is a technology leader in this country," said Ring, a Democrat from Margate and a former Yahoo executive. "We are truly, in this state, pioneering something that I believe will be a very significant trend."
Ring said, if it becomes law, the computer-coding measure — which would take effect in the 2018-19 school year — would be the first of its kind in the country. He said "dozens of other states are looking at this."
But critics of the proposal worry that it could dilute students' cultural education and place a burden on public schools that already lack adequate technology resources. The bill includes no funding to improve students' access to computers at school, and Ring has maintained his proposal has no financial impact on districts.
The five senators who opposed the measure Wednesday were Republican Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami and Democratic Sens. Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Geraldine Thompson of Orlando.
"What I'm fearful of is now we're at a place where certain students in certain ZIP codes may not have access to those kinds of classes because they may have antiquated equipment," said Bullard, who is also a high school social studies teacher in Miami-Dade.
Ring said amendments added to the bill should resolve any fears of an unfunded mandate on schools. The changes, adopted Tuesday, aimed to synch up the Senate version with a similar-but-broader proposal (HB 887) that's also ready for floor action in the House.
Gone is the requirement that public schools "must provide" computer coding. Instead, if districts cannot or do not offer coding, schools "may provide students access to the course through the Florida Virtual School or through other means."
Clemens said he appreciated the intent of Ring's proposal but disagrees that computer coding is — as Ring argues — a language, rather than a computer science.
"This debate is not about coding," Clemens said. "It's about whether or not we value culture and whether or not we value foreign language as a means to teach that."
Miami-Dade public schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho is among those who have opposed making computer coding a substitute or alternative to foreign languages, especially because of the global economy and Florida's increasingly bilingual communities.
Clemens challenged Ring by asking whether someone who learns computer coding is bilingual.
"In my mind, I think yeah," Ring said.
Ring said computer coding is more aligned with liberal arts than computer science. He argues computer coding is a universal language that helps prepare students for careers in high-demand fields of science, technology, engineering and math.
"Computer coding (and) technology is a basic skill in everything we're going to do," Ring said. "You can't do a job in this world … unless you have an understanding of technology or you absolutely will be left behind."
Other senators agreed and praised Ring for his innovation.
"We may debate whether or not it's a foreign language but it (coding) is a valuable skill," said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach. "Let's give our students a valuable skill that they're going to use forever."
Florida's public colleges and universities would be required to accept computer coding credits toward foreign language requirements for admission. Parents and students would have to sign a waiver acknowledging that out-of-state or private colleges and universities might not honor the credits as a foreign language.
The legislation has been marked as a priority by tech companies and other special interests. One of the biggest proponents, Motorola Solutions, gave legislators $88,500 between July and the start of the 2016 legislative session in early January.
Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach — the House sponsor — argues the legislation will also have broader effects by helping children who have dyslexia or mental disabilities, which make it difficult to learn global languages.
The House version has not been scheduled for floor consideration yet and still differs from Ring's. The House and Senate have to pass identical bills in order for legislation to be sent to the governor for his signature.
Adkins' bill includes a provision directing the Higher Education Coordinating Council to develop recommendations for student success in postsecondary education and careers in computer science, information technology and related fields. It includes funding for a $79,000 position at the Department of Education for a "program specialist" to support that directive.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ByKristenMClark.