May 28, 2022

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Nebraska lawmakers advance bill requiring computer science courses | Education

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Nebraska high school students would be required to learn about computer science and technology under a bill that advanced in the Legislature on Tuesday.

LB1112 would require public schools to include a graduation requirement for students to complete at least one course on computer science or technology by the start of the 2026-27 school year. The bill advanced to the second of three rounds of debate on a 33-0 vote. 

LB1112 aims to address the “tech talent workforce crisis” that state Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, who introduced the bill, said is limiting business growth across Nebraska.

“Employers, big and small, support this bill,” McKinney said. 

According to a 2021 report from the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, Nebraska has the third-largest gap of unfilled technology jobs in the U.S., behind Utah and South Dakota. McKinney said many employers have turned to hiring out-of-state applicants due to a lack of qualified applicants within the state. 

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Coding and other computer science skills are necessary in virtually every industry, McKinney said, including manufacturing and agriculture. Other supporters of the bill said it was long overdue, and even wished the bill required more. 

“This is a step we should have taken years ago,” said Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha. 

Although there were no votes against LB1112’s advancement, several senators raised concerns during Tuesday’s debate. Some lawmakers questioned how the bill would impact smaller school districts. They debated whether the bill was government overreach. 

Several senators, including Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, referred to the bill as an “unfunded mandate.” Blood asked McKinney how smaller school districts would be expected to pay for such courses. 

McKinney said there are multiple organizations, such as code.org, that offer computer science coursework free of charge to districts. The bill’s language also allows districts to offer courses online or through blended learning to provide districts some flexibility.

“We are not asking school districts to reinvent the wheel,” McKinney said. 

According to a fiscal analysis, the Nebraska Department of Education estimates LB1112 would cost about $134,000 in fiscal year 2022-23, and about $87,000 in fiscal year 2023-24 to hire an education specialist to oversee the requirements of the law. 

Several senators, including Blood, shared concerns that the bill and similar legislation micromanaged school curriculum. Another bill passed last year will require public schools to add a personal finance or financial literacy course as a graduation requirement starting in the 2023-24 school year. 

“We’re getting pretty deep into the schools,” said Sen. John Arch of La Vista. 

In response, proponents of the bill reiterated that computer science skills are necessary for most of today’s workforce. Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, who introduced the bill with McKinney, said many school districts already require computer science courses. By not ensuring that all districts follow suit, they are setting students up for failure. 

“We’re talking about serving kids here that don’t have access,” Slama said. 

Speaker of the Legislature Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln also supported the bill. He said while they may not notice the bill’s impact right away, he believes it is something that lawmakers could look back on 10 to 20 years from now as legislation they are most proud of. 

“This is something that can take our state to the future,” McKinney said.