Commentary: It’s time for Texas to step up on computer science

More than four dozen K-12 students from across Texas will travel to the Capitol on Monday to kick off Computer Science Education Week with an Hour of Code. This landmark event includes a coding tutorial on the floor of the House Chamber and demonstrations with cutting-edge technologies, such as robots, drones and virtual reality.

Hour of Code — hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s WeTeach_CS project, Texas Computer Education Association, TechNet and CS4TX — provides students with an opportunity to discover how computer science can unleash their creativity and problem-solving skills and allow them to apply these skills in the real world.

These opportunities shouldn’t be limited to the students who will visit the statehouse; every student in Texas and across the country should be able to learn these essential technical skills. Unfortunately, Texas, once a leader in computer science education, is falling behind.

The tech sector is thriving in major Texas cities, employing more than 600,000 people and contributing $117.2 billion to the state economy. Yet, there are still more than 45,000 job openings in Texas that require computing skills — and these jobs pay 75 percent more than the national median annual salary. We are not doing enough to prepare our young people to fill these jobs.

Right now, only 19 percent of Texas high schools offer advanced placement computer science, and less than three percent of students in the state took a computer science course last year. This has to change.

As students descend on the Capitol to kick off Computer Science Education Week, our state leaders must urgently recognize what’s at stake. Our continued economic growth and competitiveness depends on an education system that prepares Texas students for success in the global technology-driven economy.

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We need to ensure that the benefits of computer science education spread to every corner of the state and open new career paths for our students — in both urban and rural areas. As state lawmakers look to the future, we recommend three key steps to expand access to computer science:

First, the state needs to develop a comprehensive plan to expand K-12 computer science education statewide. The state’s tech industry can be a partner in this effort, expanding public-private partnerships that are already helping our students attain valuable skills.

Second, we must incentivize school districts to offer computer science courses. Computer science and technology applications courses should be placed under the umbrella of Career and Technical Education (CTE) to unlock weighted funding through a CTE allotment.

Finally, we need to invest in professional development programs to train a corps of teachers to lead these courses. The key to this effort will be providing additional funding for computer science certification grant programs.

There is a major opportunity here that Texas cannot afford to miss. By 2020, there will be one million more computing jobs nationally than there will be graduates to fill them, resulting in a $500 billion opportunity gap.

Our students’ ability to fill these jobs, as well as the tech industry’s ability to continue to drive growth and investment in our state, depends on an education system that offers quality computer science courses to all students.

It’s time for our state leaders to step up and answer the call on computer science. Texas’ future depends on it.

Joiner is the executive director for Texas and the Southeast at TechNet, the national, bipartisan network of technology CEOs and senior executives.

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