Legislators say the move would help students get lucrative jobs in STEM fields.

Computer science is on the way to becoming a new graduation requirement in Hawaii by the end of this decade as state legislators seek new ways to encourage homegrown technical skills.

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Only 16% of all statewide enrolled students, K-12, were registered in computer science courses last year, according to an annual report from the Department of Education. 

Concerned lawmakers, in response, recently passed House Bill 503, which requires the Board of Education to analyze and figure out ways to incorporate computer science as a graduation requirement no later than the 2030-2031 school year.

“This initiative is important because it is about aligning marketplace needs with formalized curricula,” said Rep. Justin Woodson, who introduced the bill. “And that’s something that you see in some of the highest performing public school systems globally.”

Computer-based STEM occupations are growing at an exponential rate, Woodson said. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that science, technology, engineering and math fields will “result in slightly more than half a million new computer jobs over the 10-year period.” 

Not only will there be more job opportunities, the report projects, the median annual wage will be twice the median wage of all occupations.

“High-paying jobs and natural affinity for our student population to learn about computer science,” Woodson said. “So it’s about creating opportunities, so our kids can succeed.”

BOE Board of Education and the Department of Human Services among other offices are housed in the Queen Liliuokalani Building.
A measure, currently awaiting the governor’s signature, would request the Board of Education and the Department of Education to work together and report back to the Legislature on whether computer science ultimately should be a main core requirement of the general student-body curriculum,, (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

HB 503, currently waiting for consideration by the governor, will request the Board of Education and the Department of Education to work together and report back to the Legislature on whether computer science ultimately should be one of the main core requirements of the general student-body curriculum, and, if so, how to implement that change.

Jake Ishikawa, a junior at Kapolei High School, opposed this bill in written testimony, stating concerns about the lack of teachers and the addition of another required class, which he said would reduce the number of classes students actually want to attend. 

“There is a teacher shortage,” Woodson said. “But in the more pronounced areas where we need teachers, we have been successful in deploying strategies like providing differential pay.”

Differential pay is an additional stipend that’s combined with the base pay of teachers. 

As of now, those receiving these payments are state-licensed teachers in special education, hard-to-staff locations, and in the Hawaiian language immersion program. 

Woodson said the pay differentials have led to a 30% increase of teachers in certain areas, and he hopes for the differentials to be applied to computer science teachers as well.

“The larger strategy is to continue to increase teachers’ compensation,” Woodson said.

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Teachers who don’t get compensation in accordance with their experience and years working are more likely to leave the field, he said. But legislators have created salary amendments that have increased some instructors’ salaries as much as $30,000  in recent years. 

“We know anecdotally that teachers have said they’re staying in the profession because of that realignment of payment,” he said.

If students end up feeling overwhelmed by this new requirement, they can look at existing requirements and swap out the classes in some manner that maintains overall quality controls on the education process, he added. But choosing to avoid computer science as a requirement, because some students don’t want to take it, isn’t a great option, either.

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