Computer science education in Washington

Once again Washington state finds itself on the forefront of innovation in the tech sector. This time it is the state government, not a high-tech firm or fledgling startup driving progress forward.

With bipartisan sponsorship, Washington HB 1813 passed the State House of Representatives in a landslide 91-7 vote on March 5, 2015. The bill establishes standards for computer science education across Washington state, with the aim of full participation by K-12 public schools within 10 years.

In addition to receiving support from both political parties, the bill was heavily supported by Washington businesses such as Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. Dozens of firms and local business leaders joined together and signed an impassioned letter urging the State House of Representatives to pass HB 1813.

Hopefully this broad support will be enough to drive HB 1813 past the final hurdle to becoming law, the state Senate.

Supporters of the bill cite the massive employment gap in local computer science related careers as justification for the bill’s passage. Currently there are 20,000 open computing jobs in Washington state. Compare this to only 1,200 students graduating with a university level degree in computer science in 2014.

There is a heinous disconnect between the educational system and the job market in our state. Computer science related positions represented 70 percent of the job growth in our state last year. But computer science curriculum is only offered in 7 percent of Washington’s public schools. This lack of coordination stifles the state’s growth potential.

In addition to the local tech giants that employ so many Washingtonians, there is a blossoming startup culture forming in the greater Seattle area. Only in Silicon Valley is there a higher density of tech startups. Furthermore, several non-regionally based firms, such as Facebook, Space-X and Uber have already committed to expanding their local operations.

But investing in computing education isn’t just about creating a pipeline of future employees at large tech firms. Two-thirds of the state’s jobs in the computing sector are for firms not in the high-tech industry. Starbucks, Costco and WSDOT need workers trained in computing technology the same way that Microsoft, Boeing and Amazon do.

Despite these compelling arguments, there are still some who oppose integrating computer science education into public schools. Generally, people in this camp cite budgetary concerns. Proponents of austerity are fearful of any expansion to state spending. But teaching computer science in schools has implications far beyond the job market.

We live in the digital age, meaning that nearly every aspect of life is impacted by computing technology either directly or indirectly. It is crucial for young students to understand the technology that makes digital interactions possible. English, science, math, are all seen as fundamental prerequisites for navigating modern adult life, regardless of what endeavors a young student may pursue later on. It is imperative to shift our collective thinking about computer technology so that the subject is included in this list. Today’s children will benefit more in the long-run from learning the process of procedural decomposition necessary to write an algorithm than they will from memorizing the periodic table of elements.

If the state Senate does the right thing and passes the bill, Washington will be on the cutting edge of funding computer science.

Yet I say HB 1813 does not go far enough. Any spending on public computer science education will have a massive long term return on investment for the state. By further investing in computer science education we help to further secure both the financial and well-being for future generations of Washingtonians.