Iowa school districts are being urged to offer more computer science classes in elementary, middle school and high school grades under legislation signed by Gov. Terry Branstad that’s aimed at developing more high-tech workers.

Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds held a news conference Monday at Greenwood Elementary School in Des Moines to highlight the program’s importance. Greenwood offers an after-school computer science club and 75 students are participating. Some students showed off their work on a robotic arm in the school’s library.

“Computer science is a new basic skill in the technology-driven, 21st century economy,”  Reynolds said. “That’s why I’m thrilled that we were able to get legislation passed on a bipartisan basis this year that will help us build a strong computer science foundation for all students and strengthen Iowa’s workforce talent pipeline.” 

The goal is for each high school to offer at least one high-quality computer science course, each middle school to offer instruction in exploratory computer science, and for each accredited elementary school to offer instruction in the basics of computer science.

Reynolds was joined by Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education, and Principal Eric Huinker of Greenwood School. She said the legislation is consistent with the state’s plans to have 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce with education or training beyond high school by 2025. Wise said the program will also help nonpublic schools and home school students.

Sixty-nine percent of Iowa’s high schools and middle schools, as well as 38 percent of elementary schools, already offer some instruction in computer science skills, Reynolds said. “We want all of them doing that,” she added.

Branstad, who is in Washington, D.C., this week for meetings regarding his appointment as U.S. ambassador to China, signed Senate File 274 last week. The bill establishes computer science standards and also creates a computer science professional development incentive fund to provide reimbursements to teachers and school districts.

The legislation will provide incentives, but is not a mandate, for schools to increase course offerings in computer science. In addition, the bill calls for establishing a computer science work group in the Iowa Department of Education that will recommend computer-science related guidelines and potential policies for schools. A state report is due Nov. 1.

Branstad requested $500,000 for the computer education initiative in his Condition of  the State Address to the Iowa Legislature in January. Lawmakers responded by providing $250,000 for fiscal year 2019, which begins July 1, 2018.  Money for the program could also come from federal grants or from private sources, such as high-tech companies.

The costs for school districts cannot be estimated yet, according to state fiscal analysts, because it’s not clear how many schools will choose to participate.