Region & State

Arkansas House sends amended career and technical education bill to governor’s desk

By ANTOINETTE GRAJEDA | Arkansas Advocate

The Arkansas House of Representatives approved a bill Wednesday that opponents argued will harm the state’s progress in computer science education.

The most contentious part of Senate Bill 470 is how it changes the requirement for high school students to take a computer science course to graduate. Under SB 470, students could choose to take a computer science course or a computer science-related career-and-technical education (CTE) course to graduate.

Many lawmakers have said that, while they support efforts to expand access to CTE courses, they’re concerned the bill eliminates the requirement to take a computer science-specific course and with it Arkansas’ standing as a leader in computer science education.

House sponsor Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, argued on the House floor Wednesday that SB 470 expands, not eliminates, the state’s computer science requirement. Beck said there are nine computer science courses currently available, but that could grow to 20 to 30 under the new legislation.

“I really think it enhances that [requirement] because we’re offering more computer science options,” he said.

SB 470 is nearly identical to SB 369, which the House Education Committee rejected on March 28. Sen. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, is lead sponsor of both bills.

SB 470 differs from SB 369 in that it requires the Division of Career and Technical Education to work with the Arkansas Computer and Science Initiative within the Department of Education to establish the minimum criteria by which a CTE course may be approved as a computer science or computer science-related CTE course. 

Beck said this was done to alleviate concerns that SB 470 would “water down” the state’s computer science requirements.

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson made computer science education a major focus of his administration, and Arkansas became the first state to require all public high schools to teach computer science when he signed Act 187 into law in 2015. 

Hutchinson did not seek re-election in 2022 because he was term-limited. He announced plans to run for the Republican nomination for president of the United States during a Sunday morning interview on ABC.

As governor, Hutchinson supported the Computer Science Education Advancement Act of 2021, which established the state’s computer science graduation requirement. The mandate took effect this school year. 

A requirement for school districts to employ a computer science teacher at each high school would have started in the 2023-2024 school year.

Senate Bill 378 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, would eliminate the latter mandate. The bill was approved by the Arkansas House Wednesday evening.

During Tuesday’s House Education Committee meeting, Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, questioned why a CTE graduation requirement couldn’t be added without altering the current computer science requirement, creating “a computer science and versus a computer science or.”

Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Executive Director Mike Hernandez said questions about funding the impending computer science mandates present challenges to implementing them.

Hernandez spoke in favor of SB 470 and said he sees the bill as providing an “and” situation for students instead of an “or.”

“I think it’s a great bill. I think Senator Dotson’s done a great job,” he said. “I think it also honors the computer science part of that because computer science folks will be brought to the table to make sure that components are embedded within all the other CTE courses.”

Anthony Owen, former director of the state’s computer science initiative, told the committee Tuesday he couldn’t access computer science courses through his small southwest Arkansas school’s gifted and talented program as a child. Although he had the grades, he was not admitted to the program because of his conduct. 

Owen spoke against both of Dotson’s bills in recent weeks. He also shared a letter Tuesday with committee members that was signed by 33 people opposed to SB 470 and SB 369, including representatives from the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Arkansas; Arkansas School for Math, Science and the Arts; Forge Institute; and Women’s Foundation of Arkansas.

The Arkansas House approved SB 470 Wednesday by a vote of 58-22. Ten representatives voted present.

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk for her signature.

Weighted credit

In addition to tweaking the state’s computer science graduation requirement, SB 470 requires the Division of Career and Technical Education to review new and existing CTE graduation pathways for weighted credit and requires credentials received from the ACT WorkKeys National Career Readiness Certificate to be used by an institution of higher education as credit toward a postsecondary degree. 

Beck said these components are designed to support an initiative within the LEARNS Act that gives students the option to earn a diploma through a career-ready pathway that aligns with high-wage, high-growth jobs. 

The career-ready diploma, which will be given the same status as a regular diploma, will be available starting with the freshman class of 2024-25. 

Beck said SB 269 will allow students taking CTE courses to earn credit that can help them pursue higher education or other post-secondary degree. Likewise, the legislation will help students earn certifications they may need to enter the workforce upon graduation.

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