No matter where Florida lawmakers stand on K-12 education policy, there is one area where they can readily find common ground: expanding computer science education.
Computing occupations are now the top source of all new wages in the United States, with computing jobs accounting for more than half of all projected new openings in STEM fields.
In Florida, there are nearly 18,000 open computing jobs representing more than $1.4 billion in potential annual salaries. The average salary for a computing job in Florida is $80,276, nearly double the state's average. Yet with a limited supply of qualified job seekers, companies are struggling to fill these positions.
Case in point: Florida is producing fewer than than 3,000 computer science college graduates each year and computer science education is not widely available to Florida's K-12 students. And Florida is not alone. Only 35 percent of high schools nationwide offer students any computer science courses, and only 10 percent of STEM graduates study it.
Why? States simply do not have enough qualified computer science teachers to meet the needs of today's students. This despite widespread support for expanding access and opportunities for computer science learning. Consider, nearly 70 percent of parents — and 56 percent of teachers — believe that computer science should be taught in school, according to multi-year research.
Thankfully, policymakers in Florida have pro-actively taken steps to address the skills gap. Last year, the state passed a law to ensure all middle and high schools have access to computer science either in person or through online learning. This session, legislators also took additional action to allow computer science to satisfy a math or science credit for graduation purposes.
And perhaps most significantly, our leaders recognized that without increasing the number of teachers who can teach computer science, student success will remain limited. To address the need for qualified teachers, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature allocated $10 million to fund teacher professional development specifically for computer science and to reward those teachers who earn computer science teaching certifications.
Schools, districts and the state must now work together to find flexible and affordable training options for teachers. Some Florida schools and higher education institutions are already exploring ways to do this. Broward County Public Schools, Florida International University and Florida State College at Jacksonville, among others, have partnered with Code.org to offer professional computer science training to teachers.
In many cases, the workshops are free and are offered at no cost to teachers and schools. So far, more than 6,000 Florida teachers have received training through the programs.
Computer science education is a key component of Florida's student-centered policies to ensure students will thrive in a 21st century economy. Studying computer science, no matter what their career path, helps students develop essential problem-solving skills, think critically and cultivate innovation and creativity, putting them on the path toward higher paying, fulfilling jobs.
These are the kinds of opportunities I want for my own children and for every K-12 student that calls the Sunshine State home.
Patricia Levesque is the chief executive officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national nonprofit organization focused on state education reform.