Florida Tries Again with Bill to Count Computer Science as a Foreign Language

A similar bill easily cleared the Senate last year, but didn't come up for vote in the House.

by Kristen M. Clark, The Miami Herald / February 7, 2017 0
Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

(TNS) — A revived proposal to let Florida high school students count computer coding as a foreign language looks to be on an easy path to pass the state Senate again this year.

Members of the Florida Senate Education Committee offered no questions or commentary on the proposal before voting unanimously to advance the measure out of its first committee on Monday, after hearing strong support from the business community and personal testimony from a Broward County middle-schooler and his mother.

The bill has only one other committee, Rules, to clear before it would reach the Senate floor for a final vote after the 2017 session begins March 7. House committees have yet to consider their version of the bill (HB 265).

Supporters -- like Ethan Greenberg, a sixth-grader at Silver Trail Middle School in Pembroke Pines, and his mom, Ryann -- said the Senate bill (SB 104) creates opportunities for students, with particular benefit to those with learning or speech disabilities who might struggle with written or spoken language.

Ethan told senators he has a learning disability called dysgraphia that makes it difficult for him to express himself through writing but he said he overcame it by typing on a computer.

"This sparked an interest in programming," Ethan said, adding that the bill "will give kids like me a chance to start preparing to going down that path" of a career in computer programming.

"This will be an important step forward in our state's need to integrate technology in our education curriculum," said Ryann Greenberg, who studied information systems.

However, the primary goal of the bill -- sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes -- is to help Florida high school students better prepare for technology jobs by giving them the chance to count coding courses toward foreign language credits. Business groups like the Florida Chamber, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Technology Council strongly favor the idea, as does the Florida PTA.

The measure was first introduced last year and passed the Senate with support from all but 5 of 40 senators. The House never held a floor vote, killing the bill for the 2016 session.

Despite the overwhelmingly favorable votes by lawmakers, though, the measure has drawn criticism and reluctance from some minority advocacy groups, like the League of United Latin American Citizens, foreign language educators and the superintendent of the state's largest school district, Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho.

Opponents argue coding should not replace foreign languages, which teach culture and promote communication in a global world.

But only one person spoke against the measure during Monday's hearing.

"Computer coding belongs in the computer sciences," Linda Markley, advocacy chair for the Florida Foreign Language Association, told senators. "By learning and appreciating another language we understand the 'human' in humanity."

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages calls both computer science and foreign languages "essential skills" but notes they are "not equivalent."

Among several reasons, the council noted in a position statement that "coding cannot be used by people to interact and negotiate meaning with other people," cannot be used to learn "culture through language" and "does not express thoughts or feelings."

But supporters of Brandes' bill emphasize that substituting coding for a foreign language would not be mandatory and is about giving students a choice.

"It will offer an alternative for these students. It does not take away from those who wish to speak a foreign language," said James Taylor, executive director of the Florida Technology Council, which represents the state's technology sector.

To use coding as a foreign language, students would also have to earn a related industry certification. If the bill is enacted, Florida's public colleges and universities would have to accept coding classes and the certification as satisfying admissions requirements in foreign language. But private colleges and universities in Florida and any out-of-state institution would not have to count them.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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