LINCOLN — Nebraska high school students would be required to learn about computers and technology under a bill that advanced through the Legislature on Tuesday.
Bill 1112 would require public schools to include a graduation requirement for students to complete at least one course in computer science or technology by the start of the 2026-27 school year. The bill advanced to the second of three rounds of debate on a 33-0 vote.
LB 1112 aims to address the “tech talent workforce crisis” that State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, who introduced the bill, says is limiting business growth in Nebraska.
“Employers big and small support this bill,” McKinney said.
According to a 2021 report from the Nebraska Tech Collaborative, Nebraska has the third-largest gap in unfilled tech jobs in the United States, behind only Utah and South Dakota. McKinney said many employers have turned to hiring out-of-state candidates due to a lack of qualified candidates in the state.
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Coding and other computer skills are needed in virtually every industry, McKinney said, including manufacturing and agriculture. Other supporters of the bill said it was long overdue and even wished the bill had required more.
“This is a step we should have taken years ago,” said Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha.
Although there were no votes against advancing LB 1112, several senators raised concerns during Tuesday’s debate. Some lawmakers wondered how the bill would impact small school districts. They debated whether the bill was government overreach.
Several senators, including Senator Carol Blood of Bellevue, called the bill an “unfunded mandate.” Blood asked McKinney how small school districts should pay for such classes.
McKinney said there are several organizations, such as code.org, that offer free computer classes to districts. The language of the bill also allows districts to offer courses online or through blended learning to provide districts with some flexibility.
“We’re not asking school districts to reinvent the wheel,” McKinney said.
According to a tax analysis, the Nebraska Department of Education estimates that LB 1112 would cost approximately $134,000 in fiscal year 2022-23 and approximately $87,000 in fiscal year 2023-24 to hire a specialist in education to oversee the requirements of the law.
Several senators, including Blood, have shared concerns that the bill and similar legislation micromanage the school curriculum. Another bill passed last year will require public schools to add a personal finance or financial literacy course as a graduation requirement starting in the 2023-24 school year.
“We’re getting pretty deep in the schools,” said Sen. John Arch of La Vista.
In response, supporters of the bill reiterated that computer skills are necessary for most of today’s workforce. Sen. Julie Slama of Sterling, who introduced the bill with McKinney, said many school districts already require computer classes. By not ensuring that all districts follow suit, they are setting students up for failure.
“We’re talking here about serving kids who don’t have access to it,” Slama said.
Speaker of the Legislature, Senator Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, also supported the bill. He said while they might not notice the bill’s impact right away, he thinks it’s something lawmakers could look back on as legislation they’re most proud of in 10 to 20 years.
“It’s something that can take our state into the future,” McKinney said.