SALT LAKE CITY — While the days of the three R's driving education curriculum are long gone, Utah lawmakers are propelling a legislative proposal aiming to put computer science on par with other core public school study topics.
And should legislators and the governor provide a final sign-off on the new Utah Computer Science Grant Act, a group of local tech founders are ready to back up the effort with a $5 million infusion of their own cash.
Rep. John Knotwell, R-Herriman, sponsor of HB227, is hoping to seed the opt-in grant program, which would be available to all Utah school districts, with $7 million in funding with the goal of creating computer science education opportunities for all K-12 students in the state by 2022. His bill found unanimous support from the Senate Education Committee on Monday morning, and has yet to see a dissenting vote after passing through both a House committee review and vote of the full body. The bill is on the Senate's second reading calendar.
Knotwell said a 2016 survey commissioned by Google and conducted by Gallup of 16,000 parents, students and educators showed the vast majority of respondents view computer science curriculum at the same level of importance as subjects such as math, science, history and English and want it taught in schools.
“Yet in Utah today, just more than half of our middle and high schools offer computer science," Knotwell said. "Demands for these courses exceed capacity. It’s clear teachers are hungry to teach and students really want these courses.
"HB227 aims to help."
The bill outlines a K-12 initiative among government, industry and education partners to develop a statewide master plan for computer science. It will give schools an opportunity to apply for grants with the goal of implementing computer science by 2022. The money can be used for staff development, purchase of curriculum materials and other program support.
Knotwell told the Deseret News following Monday's hearing that he's yet to hear "even a modicum" of negative response to the effort and said he was proud to have built a coalition of support that includes lawmakers, the State School Board, the local school board members association, the tech industry and the governor's office. He also noted the bill has 50 House co-sponsors.
Aaron Skonnard, co-founder an CEO of Utah-based tech education platform Pluralsight, joined four other local tech industry leaders at the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit earlier this year in announcing a pledge to match state funding, up to $5 million, to implement a state computer science program.
On Monday, Skonnard told the Deseret News he was pleased to see lawmakers making a serious effort to address the dearth of computer science education options for Utah public school students.
“The speed at which HB227 is moving through the Legislature with unanimous votes and broad bipartisan support demonstrates the seriousness by which lawmakers are approaching this important issue,” Skonnard said. “Computer science is now a foundational literacy that is critical to preparing Utah students to succeed in our technology-driven world.
"These funds, combined with the private funds I and others from Silicon Slopes are providing as wraparound funding to support the state strategic plan, will put us on course to fulfill Gov. Herbert’s goal of having computer science available to every Utah student by 2022.”
Knotwell's original proposal has been modified from an initial ask for $10 million in seed funding as well as making the State School Board, in conjunction with the board of Talent Ready Utah, the administrators of the grant program.
Following the announcement of the tech founders' matching challenge in January, Skonnard said the private funding would be able to take an unencumbered and more innovative approach to turbocharging the computer science effort.
"The way we think of it is there’s a lot of bureaucracy in the way school money, education money is spent," Skonnard said. "Assume $10 million gets allocated there. There’s going to be a lot of strings attached to how that money is spent and how it goes to impact the change we want to see.
"This money that we’re providing is meant to wrap around the government funding in a more innovative way to catalyze the things that need to be catalyzed, to incentivize the things need to be incentivized and to fill in the gaps of what that state money is not able to do because of the guardrails around it."
Mary Nielson, representing the Utah School Boards Association, told the Senate committee on Monday there is a “huge need” for computer science education statewide.
Nielson, who serves on the Juab School Board, said the rural district has a coding teacher at the junior high level. The class includes 13 girls, one of whom coded an app for a local restaurant.
“That young lady now is going into high school and we don’t have anywhere for her to go," Nielson said. "This will be a tremendous benefit for her."
Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, also spoke in support of the bill.
“This is important and fundamental if we want to get people into computer science and engineering," Milner said. "Providing them access to these experiences in the early grades and extending them through middle school or junior high school into high school is extremely important."
On Tuesday, the Salt Lake Chamber hosted a press event at the Capitol to rally support for HB227.
Chamber President/CEO Derek Miller said for students preparing for the job market of today, computer skills were no longer a sidebar qualification.
"The purpose of today's event was to highlight how computer science is a skill that is not just useful but necessary in a broad array of professions and careers across a wide variety of industries, if not every industry," Miller said. "If you think about how the world has changed in just the last few decades, the skills that our students will need, computer science and an understanding of technology is at the top of that list."
Dan Gelston, president of broadband communications at L3 Technologies, said even with top-notch postsecondary institutions across the state, more support was needed to provide K-12 students with tech learning opportunities.
“In order for our nation to maintain its technological superiority we must invest here at home in developing a highly skilled workforce, especially in STEM-related fields,” Gelston said in a statement. “We have a strong network of universities here in the state, but our nation and our state can and should do more to provide youth greater access to computer science training, as early as elementary school, and certainly during their middle and high schools years.”
Proponents of the bill have noted that the collective skill set of Utah's workforce is failing to match up with the high-paying opportunities being created by the state's burgeoning tech sector. As of January, the Utah Department of Workforce Services reported that almost 6,000 tech-centric job openings remained unfilled statewide, a figure that's been growing steadily for the past several years.
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez