Republican candidates for governor and state school superintendent unveiled a plan Tuesday to broaden computer science education in Montana’s high schools.
The proposal would add computer science classes to every high school in the state, certify more educators to teach the curriculum and allow the courses to count as core curriculum and second languages in public schools.
During a Tuesday afternoon press conference in Kalispell, gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte and superintendent of Public Instruction hopeful Elsie Arntzen stressed the need to focus public education on the growing role of computers.
“They’re become more pervasive in all industries, and it’s hard not to find examples in agriculture, hospitals, manufacturing and our personal lives,” Gianforte said, addressing a small group of supporters, community members and reporters in Depot Park.
He said no high schools offered AP computer science classes in 2014 and referred to a recent study by the Montana High Tech Business Alliance that he said “cited a lack of skilled labor as the largest impediment to continued growth in that industry here in Montana.”
Arntzen, a teacher for 23 years and current state senator from Billings, said that if elected, she would make the program part of a larger push for science, technology, engineering and math education, vocational training and Career Technical Education programs.
“There hasn’t been a push forward on outcomes — when you get your high school diploma, what’s next?” she asked after the press conference. “If we can develop skills in high school, that kid is going to have a high school diploma and a whole set of skills to take to that future employee.”
While Gianforte did not provide specifics on the cost of implementing the program, he said the curriculum could be implemented relatively cheaply. He said afterward he would be open to increasing the state’s education budget for specific programs.
“You don’t necessarily have to buy a lot of equipment to do this,” he said, adding that the bulk of the cost would come from teacher certifications.
Most schools already have computer labs, Gianforte said, noting that CodeMontana, a public education program he co-founded and funds through his charitable foundation, has been able to provide public school computer labs for about $1,500 per dozen students. Adding teacher certifications to each state college with a computer science program would also be a low-cost method to raise the number of qualified teachers in Montana, he said.
Gianforte is known for founding RightNow Technologies, a successful tech business in Bozeman that sold for $1.8 billion, and has funded tech education initiatives through his charitable foundation.
He said despite at least 270 high-tech firms in the state looking to hire hundreds of college graduates in the state, engineering-focused Montana State University graduates relatively few students from its computer science department. In the last school year, the program had 64 computer science majors graduate.
He added that his program would be modeled in part after the Joy and Beauty of Computing program offered by MSU. The program provides college-level computer science courses to high school students, which he called “a soft landing into computing.”
Arntzen said her legislative experience, which includes four terms in the state House, gives her the experience needed to sell the state Legislature on appropriating funds for the initiative.
Repeating the theme of bringing “believability” to the Office of Public Instruction, she said afterward that when students bring home those skills, the confidence parents place in the public school system would be reflected in whether they support school bonding initiatives.
“Let’s use those precious tax dollars where kids are educated K through 12 to lead to a career for them,” she said.
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.