Bills aim to hike tech ed­u­ca­tion funds

Firms, ed­u­ca­tors see com­puter sci­ence as cure for worker deficit.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Dan Zehr dzehr@states­man.com

High-tech com­pa­nies in Austin and across Texas strug­gle to find work­ers with the com­puter sci­ence and tech­ni­cal skills they need. More of­ten than not, they have to poach work­ers from other com­pa­nies or re­cruit them from other states and coun­tries.

Even at full ca­pac­ity, the Cen­tral Texas higher ed­u­ca­tion pipe­line pro­duces only half the com­puter sci­ence grad­u­ates needed to fill the open jobs in 19 of Austin’s key high-tech oc­cu­pa­tions, ac­cord­ing to a 2015 re­port from the Austin Tech­nol­ogy Coun­cil.

So this year, com­pa­nies and ed­u­ca­tors are mak­ing a push at the Leg­is­la­ture in hopes of for­mal­iz­ing and gar­ner­ing more fi­nan­cial back­ing for com­puter sci­ence pro­grams in high schools. Pro­po­nents of five key bills say they’ve re­ceived broad, bi­par­ti­san sup­port from law­mak­ers, but pas­sage in a tight bud­get cy­cle is far from as­sured.

“We want fu­ture tech­nolo­gies and in­dus­tries that will dom­i­nate the new econ­omy to be cre­ated right here in Texas,” said Drew Scheberle, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent at the Greater Austin Cham­ber of Com­merce. “We want to be more in con­trol of our own des­tiny. The key is that our tal­ent has a well-rounded ed­u­ca­tion and deeper skills in math

and pro­gram­ming.”

The bill that leads for the mo­ment would es­tab­lish a Path­ways in Tech­nol­ogy Early Col­lege High School pro­gram in Texas. More of­ten called P-TECH, th­ese pro­grams got their start through a part­ner­ship be­tween IBM and New York City schools and since have spread to five other states.

The Texas pro­posal was in­tro­duced by state Sen. Larry Tay­lor, R-Friendswood, chairman of the Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, and has the sup­port of Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick. Austin’s Sen. Kirk Wat­son, a Demo­crat, has signed on as a co-au­thor of the bill, and Rep. Dan Hu­berty, R-Hous­ton, chairman of the House Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee, is a co-au­thor of the com­pan­ion bill in that cham­ber.

“Our ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem should equip stu­dents with the tools and ex­pe­ri­ence they will need to be suc­cess­ful in what­ever ca­reer they choose to pur­sue,” Wat­son said in an email. “I be­lieve P-TECH is one model that does that by con­nect­ing stu­dents with busi­nesses to get hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence and an even­tual in­ter­view with th­ese com­pa­nies.”

P-TECH brings in­dus­try spon­sors to­gether with a six-year, early col­lege high school pro­gram. The part­ner com­pa­nies pro­vide men­tors and in­tern­ships, and they pledge to give grad­u­ates — who earn a diploma and an as­so­ciate de­gree — a first-in-line in­ter­view slot for rel­e­vant jobs.

In New York, they call the en­tire process a “flow in­ter­view,” said Sandy Dochen, Austin-based man­ager for IBM’s cor­po­rate ci­ti­zen­ship and cor­po­rate af­fairs in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas.

“They’re learn­ing with each other,” Dochen said. “Busi­nesses (learn) about what the kids’ needs are and what their tal­ents can be; and stu­dents are learn­ing not just aca­demic knowl­edge with the cour­ses, but prac­ti­cal ap­plied knowl­edge.”

The first P-TECH pro­grams in New York will com­plete their sixth year this spring, but IBM al­ready has hired eight stu­dents who fin­ished early. A few others in­ter­viewed at IBM but opted to pur­sue a four-year de­gree in­stead.

Tay­lor’s bill would ear­mark $5 mil­lion a year to help dis­tricts set up sim­i­lar pro­grams, but Austin has al­ready launched a pro­gram that would re­ceive the of­fi­cial P-TECH des­ig­na­tion un­der this leg­is­la­tion, and so has Dal­las.

In fact, the Dal­las school district al­ready has eight P-TECHs up and run­ning, in­clud­ing its first ini­tia­tive at Seagov­ille High School. It plans to add 10 more in Au­gust, ac­cord­ing to Is­rael Cordero, the district’s chief of strate­gic ini­tia­tives. The school had al­most 5,000 stu­dents show in­ter­est in 2,700 seats, Cordero told the Se­nate Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mit­tee last month.

“If you just look at AISD and what’s brew­ing in Dal­las, you could have a ton of cam­puses here,” Dochen said. “We quickly could be big­ger or right up there with New York, where we’ve had this in place al­most six years now.”

A col­lec­tion of four other House bills seeks to ex­pand com­puter sci­ence classes for all schools and stu­dents, rather than carv­ing out an early col­lege high school pro­gram. Two of them would boost fi­nan­cial sup­port for com­puter sci­ence cour­ses by fund­ing them at the higher rate al­lot­ted to dis­tricts for ca­reer and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion, or CTE, cour­ses.

Such fund­ing would pro­vide schools a “busi­ness model to in­vest in com­puter sci­ence classes,” said Carol Fletcher, deputy di­rec­tor at the Univer­sity of Texas’ Cen­ter for STEM Ed­u­ca­tion.

Cur­rently, she said, dis­tricts need to take money away from other pro­grams to sup­port com­puter sci­ence cour­ses. The ad­di­tional CTE-level fund­ing would pro­vide a greater in­cen­tive to add such cour­ses, and one of the bills would cat­e­go­rize com­puter sci­ence as a CTE pro­gram.

“This would put it in a group al­ready con­nected to real-world jobs in a way that’s re­ally nec­es­sary for com­puter sci­ence,” Fletcher said. “If we want to main­tain learn­ing and keep con­nected with in­dus­try, hav­ing it un­der CTE is the best way to do that.”

A third pro­posal, from state Rep. Dwayne Bo­hac, R-Hous­ton, who also au­thored one of the fund­ing bills, would es­tab­lish a grant pro­gram for train­ing com­puter sci­ence teach­ers. It would set stan­dards for pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment and help pro­duce qual­i­fied com­puter sci­ence teach­ers at a statewide scale, Fletcher said.

While leg­is­la­tors have voiced sup­port for th­ese bills, they will carry a higher price tag than P-TECH. Fletcher said the pro­posal to wrap com­puter sci­ence into CTE would cost about $20 mil­lion for the bi­en­nium.

“We spend sig­nif­i­cantly more than that try­ing to bribe com­pa­nies to come here from Cal­i­for­nia and else­where,” she said. “If we spent that money to grow our own in­no­va­tors and en­trepreneurs rather than try­ing to con­vince com­pa­nies to re­lo­cate here and bring a bunch of peo­ple from Cal­i­for­nia, I think it’s a much bet­ter in­vest­ment.”

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