Florida Senate votes to consider coding a foreign language for graduation requirements

State senators in Florida overwhelmingly approved a proposal to allow high school students to count computer coding as a foreign language course, although questions linger about whether the two subjects should be considered one and the same.

The state Senate passed the bill by Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring on a 35-5 vote.

“With this bill, we’re putting a stamp on it: Florida is a technology leader in this country,” said Ring, a former Yahoo executive. “We are truly, in this state, pioneering something that I believe will be a very significant trend.”

Ring said, if it becomes law, the computer-coding measure — which would take effect in the 2018-19 school year — would be the first of its kind in the country. He said “dozens of other states are looking at this.”

But critics of the proposal worry it could dilute students’ cultural education and place a burden on public schools that already lack adequate technology resources. The bill includes no funding to improve students’ access to computers at school, and Ring has maintained his proposal has no financial impact on districts.

The five senators who opposed the measure were Republican Sen. Anitere Flores and Democratic Sens. Dwight Bullard, Jeff Clemens, Eleanor Sobel and Geraldine Thompson.

“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 Bullard, who also is also a high school social studies teacher in Miami-Dade.

Ring said amendments added to the bill should resolve any fears of an unfunded mandate on schools. The changes aimed to sync up the Senate version with a similar-but-broader proposal that’s also ready for floor action in the House.

Gone is the requirement that public schools “must provide” computer coding. Instead, if districts cannot or do not offer coding, schools “may provide students access to the course through the Florida Virtual School or through other means.”

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.

“This debate is not about coding,” Clemens said. “It’s about whether or not we value culture and whether or not we value foreign language as a means to teach that.”

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is among those who have opposed making computer coding a substitute or alternative to foreign languages, especially because of the global economy and Florida’s increasingly bilingual communities.

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

“In my mind, I think yeah,” Ring said.

Ring said computer coding is more aligned with the liberal arts than computer science. He argues computer coding is a universal language that helps prepare students for careers in high-demand careers in science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“Computer coding (and) technology is a basic skill in everything we’re going to do,” Ring said. “You can’t do a job in this world … unless you have an understanding of technology or you absolutely will be left behind.”

Other senators agreed and praised Ring for his innovation.

“We may debate whether or not it’s a foreign language but it (coding) is a valuable skill,” GOP Sen. Aaron Bean said. “Let’s give our students a valuable skill that they’re going to use forever.”

Florida’s public colleges and universities would be required to accept computer coding credits toward foreign language requirements for admission. Parents and students would have to sign a waiver acknowledging that out-of-state or private colleges and universities might not honor the credits as a foreign language.

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.

Republican state Rep. Janet Adkins — 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 House version has not been scheduled for floor consideration yet and it still differs from Ring’s. The House and Senate have to pass identical bills in order for legislation to be sent to the governor for his signature.

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