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Computer-coding proposal ready for Florida Senate vote on Wednesday


Florida senators are poised to vote on a bill Wednesday afternoon that will allow high school students to count computer-coding courses as foreign language credits, despite opposition from critics who argue the two shouldn't be considered one and the same.

Amendments added to Sen. Jeremy Ring's bill (SB 468) on Tuesday aimed to sync up the Senate version with a similar-but-broader proposal (HB 887) that's also ready for floor action in the House.

The changes remove the requirement that public schools "must provide" computer coding and, instead, steers that responsibility to Florida Virtual School.

"If a school district does not offer (the computer coding course), it may provide students access to the course through the Florida Virtual School or through other means," reads the second of two approved amendments that were sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, originally sought but then withdrew an amendment that would have made related industry certifications in computer coding count toward math -- not foreign language -- requirements. 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.

Clemens challenged Ring by asking whether someone who learns computer coding is bilingual.

"In my mind, I think yeah," said Ring, a Democrat from Margate and a former Yahoo executive. "I do believe there's a bilingual aspect to that."

Ring said computer coding is more aligned with the liberal arts rather than computer science. He argues computer coding is a universal language that helps prepare students for careers in high-demand STEM careers.

"Whatever profession we choose ... if you don't have certain technology skills, you will be left behind. It's a basic skill," Ring said.

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 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.

But opponents -- including Miami-Dade public schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho -- say computer coding shouldn't be a replacement or alternative to foreign languages.

"I absolutely disagree with the proposition that computer coding is an equal substitute — an equal and necessary substitute — for foreign language," Carvalho told the Herald/Times in December. "Based on both educational, intellectual development, and emotional development — as well as long-term economic development in an increasingly bilingual and biliterate community — computer coding is not a trade-off."

Carvalho and Ring's fellow Democratic lawmakers also worry that the proposal could impose costs on public schools -- particularly those in impoverished areas -- which are already strapped for enough computers or adequate technology resources.

"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 Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, a consistent opponent of Ring's bill.

Ring said Galvano's amendments resolve concerns about unfunded mandates. He countered Bullard repeatedly during Tuesday's floor discussion by saying he spoke to Carvalho himself and "didn’t get any indication there was a lack of access in your county."

Miami-Dade has one computer for every three students, among the most in South Florida. Carvalho previously acknowledged to the Herald/Times that Miami-Dade is "better prepared than most" because of a $200 million investment in technology provided through a voter-approved bond in 2012.

Ring likened Bullard's argument about computers to resources schools have for music classes.

"If the school can’t afford musical instruments, does that mean we shouldn’t have music in the rest of the state?" Ring asked hypothetically.

Ring has rejected claims the legislation has a financial impact on public schools. He said again Tuesday students' access to computers is "important" but called it "an appropriations issue." He did not seek funding for more technology in schools when his bill was vetted by two budget committees before reaching the Senate floor.

Opponents also question whether Florida high-schoolers would be put at a disadvantage when applying to out-of-state or private colleges and universities. Under Ring's bill, Florida's public colleges and universities would be required to accept computer coding credits toward foreign language requirements for admission, but the Legislature can't impose such a mandate on out-of-state or private schools.

"I’m rather concerned that very often students make strange choices and might make a decision not to take language for two years as a result of this law," Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, said.

Ring noted his bill requires students and parents to sign a waiver, acknowledging the risk in applying to out-of-state or private schools.

The House version has not been scheduled for floor consideration yet. The House and Senate have to pass identical bills in order for legislation to be sent to the governor for his signature.

Adkins' version still differs from Ring's. It includes a provision directing the Higher Education Coordinating Council to develop recommendations for student success in post-secondary education and careers in computer science, information technology and related fields. It includes funding for a $79,000-paid position at the Department of Education to pay for a "program specialist" to support that directive.

If it becomes law, Ring said the computer-coding measure -- which would take effect in the 2018-19 school year -- would be the first of its kind in the country, although he said "dozens of other states are looking at this."