Leaders of dozens of the nation’s top businesses — from Apple and Facebook to Target, Walmart and AT&T — are calling on Congress to help provide computer science education in all K-12 schools, arguing that the United States needs far more students who are literate in the technologies that are transforming nearly every industry.
They worry that the United States could lose its competitive edge without significant efforts to boost computer science among the nation’s youth. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort, saying they see teaching coding and programming as a way to draw middle-class jobs to their states, and dozens of school system superintendents and nonprofit leaders say they see computer science courses as essential for giving children the skills they’ll need to be successful in the modern economy.
“Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”
An estimated 500,000 unfilled U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often sending companies turning to foreign workers for specialized skills. The federal government isn’t doing much to help: Virtually no federal funding is dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools.
Computer science education has long been treated as an elective in K-12 schools, a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. But there is a growing movement to treat computer science instead as a core subject, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed.
“It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, Dictionary.com and the dating site Match.com.
Hadi Partovi, the chief executive of Code.org — a nonprofit that has helped more than 100 school districts train teachers and expand computer science offerings — was a driving force behind Tuesday’s letter to Congress. He said that the range of industries represented — including retail, tech, finance, airlines, media and even the tractor company John Deere — shows that every business sector has an interest in ensuring that children are learning not just to use software, but to create it.
“It used to be that computer science and technology were about tech companies in California,” Partovi said. “At this point, there’s not a single industry or a single state you can look at where the field and the market isn’t being changed by technology.”
The movement to push computer science has been focused within states and school districts, aided by many millions of dollars in donations from private companies. But advocates say federal funding is key to giving every student access to computer science courses; such courses have been more available in affluent communities than in poor ones and have enrolled students who as a group skew whiter and more male than the general student population.
Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job.
“Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field,”
Reid Hoffman, the co-founder and chief executive of LinkedIn, said he took a little programming in high school and messed around with an Apple IIe as a teenager.
“I’m a perfect example of someone who is not an engineer, but my path was greatly improved by understanding how software is growing, how it works, how it is transforming the world and what are the kinds of things I could do with my life and career,” said Hoffman, who has a net worth of $2.8 billion, according to Forbes.
Private-sector donations tend to fund camps and weekend classes, and that’s not enough, said Melinda Gates, who has invested billions of dollars in U.S. education reform through the foundation she heads with husband Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft.
“Learning computer science in short bursts is not nearly as effective as having computer science as part of students’ continuous curriculum,” said Melinda Gates, who signed the letter. “Public schools are the only place we can ensure that all students, from all walks of life, have the chance to learn computer science.”
Among other signers of the letter were Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Inc.; Larry Fink, chief executive of the investment management firm BlackRock; James Murdoch, chief executive of 21st Century Fox; and Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. (Bezos owns The Washington Post and, through a spokesman, declined to comment.)
College Board data show that more than 160,000 females in the high school Class of 2015 were academically ready to succeed in advanced computer science, according to their scores on standardized tests such as the PSAT. But only 10,142 of those girls — 6 percent — went on to take the Advanced Placement Computer Science exam, said College Board chief executive David Coleman.
Similar statistics show that black and Latino students who show academic readiness for AP computer science also are not taking the course, Coleman said. “That is a great waste of talent for this country,” he said.
President Obama in January asked lawmakers to make a $4 billion investment in providing computer science to all students, calling it a “basic skill, right along with the three R’s.”
Many observers say that while it’s unlikely that the GOP-led Congress will agree to new spending at that level, there is a general consensus among politicians about the importance of teaching computer science to more students.
The Computer Science Education Coalition — whose members include many of the companies whose executives signed Tuesday’s letter — is asking Congress for a more modest investment: $250 million, an amount that the coalition says would help reach more than 3.5 million students in 52,000 classrooms nationwide.
Tuesday’s letter does not request a specific dollar figure and describes funding for computer-science education as a “bipartisan issue can be addressed without growing the federal budget.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who led the push to make his state one of the first to put comprehensive computer science requirements into law, said the goal is to allocate existing education dollars with a new emphasis on coding and programming.
The budget debate on Capitol Hill won’t be about whether to invest in computer science education, Hutchinson predicted, but on how much: “This should be a real easy way to bring people in Washington together,” he said.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who is slated to become chair of the National Governors Association in July, said he will use that perch to advocate for federal support for computer science. Virginia has about 30,000 unfilled computing jobs, McAuliffe said, which means an estimated $3 billion in unrealized wages and $165 million in lost income tax. This spring the state legislature passed a bill that requires computer science to be woven into the K-12 curriculum.
“I want us to be the cyber capital of the United States,” McAuliffe said. “The only way we’re going to do it is lean in on building those digital skills.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate education committee, said that Congress already passed a new federal education law that explicitly allows states and districts to use federal funds for computer-science programs and teacher-training.
It’s such encouragement — not mandates — that is “the way to unleash real innovation and student achievement in our nation’s 100,000 public schools,” Alexander said.
Besides asking Congress to contribute, many of those who signed the letter announced private donations totaling $48 million to boost computer science education nationwide, $23 million of which will go to Code.org.
Among the most generous donors is Microsoft. Chief executive Brad Smith said there’s a need for the same kind of urgency and bipartisan spirit that characterized the push for stronger science education in the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first satellite.
“I think every company in our industry, and increasingly many other companies across the country, are confronting challenges in finding people with the right skills,” Smith said. “That’s one of the reasons . . . why we turn to people from other countries, and one of the reasons we increasingly face the specter of putting jobs in other countries. If we can’t fill the jobs here, we need to fill them somewhere else.”
Here is the text of the open letter to Congress, followed by the full list of signers:
Dear Members of Congress and fellow Americans,
As business leaders, elected officials, and educators, we join forces to deliver a bipartisan message about opportunity and the American Dream. Technology is transforming society at an unprecedented rate. Whether it’s smartphones or social networks, self-driving cars or personalized medicine, nothing embodies the American Dream so much as the opportunity to change or even reinvent the world with technology. And participating in this world requires access to computer science in our schools. We ask you to provide funding for every student in every school to have an opportunity to learn computer science.
Support for this idea is sweeping our nation. Ninety percent of parents want their children to have access to computer science education at school, and teachers agree. They know that technology opens doors. A hundred thousand teachers have taken matters into their own hands and already begun teaching computer science. Over 100 school districts are rolling out courses, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, from Miami to Las Vegas. Twenty states have passed policies and are now looking to support professional training for new computer science teachers. Private donors have collectively committed tens of millions of dollars to solving this problem, including $48 million of new commitments announced today by many of the undersigned.
Despite this groundswell, three-quarters of U.S. schools do not offer meaningful computer science courses. At a time when every industry in every state is impacted by advances in computer technology, our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers. Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.
How is this acceptable? America leads the world in technology. We invented the personal computer, the Internet, e-commerce, social networking, and the smartphone. This is our chance to position the next generation to participate in the new American Dream.
Not only does computer science provide every student foundational knowledge, it also leads to the highest-paying, fastest-growing jobs in the U.S. economy. There are currently over 500,000 open computing jobs, in every sector, from manufacturing to banking, from agriculture to healthcare, but only 50,000 computer science graduates a year. Whether a student aspires to be a software engineer, or if she just wants a well-rounded education in today’s changing world, access to computer science in school is an economic imperative for our nation to remain competitive. And with the growing threat of cyber warfare, this is even a critical matter of national security. Despite this growing need, targeted federal funding to carry out these efforts in classrooms is virtually non-existent. This bipartisan issue can be addressed without growing the federal budget.
We urge you to amplify and accelerate the local efforts in classrooms, unlock opportunity in every state, and give an answer to all the parents and teachers who believe that every student, in every school, should have a chance to learn computer science.
Arne Sorenson, CEO, Marriott
Barry Diller, Chairman, IAC and Expedia
Bill and Melinda Gates
Bobby Kotick, CEO, Activision Blizzard
Brad Smith, President, Microsoft
Brian Chesky, CEO, Airbnb
Brian Cornell, Chairman and CEO, Target
Doug McMillon, CEO, Walmart
Daniel Schulman, CEO, Paypal. Chairman, Symantec
Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO, Expedia
Devin Wenig, CEO, eBay
Doug Parker, Chairman and CEO, American Airlines
Edward Breen, Chairman and CEO, DuPont
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman, Alphabet, Inc.
Ginni Rometty, Chairman and CEO, IBM
Grant Verstandig, CEO, Rally Health
Herb Allen, President, Allen & Company
Jack Dorsey, CEO, Twitter and Square
James Murdoch, CEO, 21st Century Fox
James P. Gorman, Chairman and CEO, Morgan Stanley
Jeff Bezos, Chairman and CEO, Amazon
Jessica Alba, CEO, The Honest Company
Joe Lonsdale, Partner, 8VC. Founder, Palantir
John Donahoe, Chairman, Paypal
Julie Sweet, Chief Executive, Accenture North America
Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO, BlackRock
Lowell McAdam, Chairman and CEO, Verizon
Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO, Salesforce
Mark Cuban, Owner, Dallas Mavericks, Magnolia Pictures, Landmark Theatres
Mark Zuckerberg, Chairman and CEO, Facebook
Rami Rahim, CEO, Juniper Networks
Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T
Reid Hoffman, Chairman, LinkedIn
Rich Barton, Chairman, Zillow
Richard Anderson, CEO, Delta Airlines
Robert A. Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company
Sam Altman, President, Y Combinator
Samuel Allen, Chairman and CEO, John Deere
Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft
Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook
Terry J. Lundgren, Chairman and CEO, Macy’s, Inc
Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
Vishal Sikka, CEO, Infosys
Asa Hutchinson, Governor, Arkansas (R)
Brian Sandoval, Governor, Nevada (R)
C.L. “Butch” Otter, Governor, Idaho (R)
Charlie Baker, Governor, Massachusetts (R)
Dannell P. Malloy, Governor, Connecticut (D)
David Y. Ige, Governor, Hawaii (D)
Earl Ray Tomblin, Governor, West Virginia (D)
Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Governor, California (D)
Gina M. Raimondo, Governor, Rhode Island (D)
Jack Dalrymple, Governor, North Dakota (R)
Jack Markell, Governor, Delaware (D)
Jay Inslee, Governor, Washington (D)
John Hickenlooper, Governor, Colorado (D)
Kate Brown, Governor, Oregon (D)
Maggie Hassan, Governor, New Hampshire (D)
Mark Dayton, Governor, Minnesota (D)
Mary Fallin, Governor, Oklahoma (R)
Matt Bevin, Governor, Kentucky (R)
Matt Mead, Governor, Wyoming (R)
Mike Pence, Governor, Indiana (R)
Peter Shumlin, Governor, Vermont (D)
Phil Bryant, Governor, Mississippi (R)
Rick Snyder, Governor, Michigan (R)
Steve Bullock, Governor, Montana (D)
Susana Martinez, Governor, New Mexico (R)
Terry Branstad, Governor, Iowa (R)
Terry McAuliffe, Governor, Virginia (D)
Antwan Wilson, Superintendent, Oakland
Bob Runcie, Superintendent, Broward County Public Schools
Carmen Fariña, Chancellor, NYC Department of Education
Forrest Claypool, CEO, Chicago Public Schools
Kimberly Hill, Superintendent, Charles County Public Schools
Michelle King, Superintendent, Los Angeles Unified School District
Pat Skorkowsky, Superintendent, Clark County School District
Richard Carranza, Superintendent, San Francisco Unified School District
Susan Enfield, Superintendent, Highline Public Schools
Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent, California
Education / Nonprofit
Bobby Schnabel, CEO, Association for Computing Machinery
Cornell Brooks, President and CEO, NAACP
Daniel A. Domenech, Executive Director, AASA, The School
David Coleman, CEO, College Board
Elisa Villanueva Beard, CEO, Teach For America
Gail Connelly, ED, National Association of Elementary School Principals
Hadi Partovi, CEO, Code.org
Lee Hood, MD, PhD, President, Institute for Systems Biology. Co-founder, Amgen
Linda D. Hallman, CEO, American Association of University Women
Lucy Sanders, CEO, National Center for Women and IT
Mark Nelson, Executive Director, CS Teachers Association
Matthew Randazzo, CEO, National Math & Science Initiative
Peggy Brookins, CEO, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
Telle Whitney, CEO, Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology
Thomas J. Gentzel, Executive Director, National School Boards Association