The Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee’s public hearing on SB 5088, a bill that would require every public Washington state high schools to offer a CS elective.

CS education policymaking: how a (state) bill becomes a (state) law

Andy J. Ko

Last Friday the Washington state senate committee on Early Learning and K-12 Education scheduled a public hearing on SB 5088, a draft law that would, among other things, require all Washington state public high schools to offer a CS class. I’ve known this bill was coming for a while, since I’ve been part of shaping by working with Code.org, several other organizations, and through a few brief conversation with the bill’s primary sponsor, Senator Lisa Wellman.

As a state leader advocating for exactly such policies, my Martin Luther King, Jr. Day went from the ill-fitting “write my full professor promotion materials” to the much more appropriate “advocate for equity in CS education.” My new Monday goal was to testify in this public hearing, representing the students, parents, teachers, and institutions who’d like to see this bill become law.

I spent part of the weekend figuring out what I wanted to say. I researched the ten committee members, their platforms, their constituencies, and the cities they represented. I read the senator’s biographies, trying to figure out whether they were on the committee because they were passionate about supporting (or eroding) education, or just because someone assigned them. I put together a carefully crafted 3–5 minute testimony that spoke to the committee members least likely to be persuaded to support an educational mandate.

By the time I had it ready, it turned out it was more than just me willing to drive to Olympia, Washington to testify. My colleagues Lauren Bricker and Brett Wortzman, both lecturers in UW CSE, were game to head south. Others from my state CS education advocacy team CS for All Washington, including Kevin Wang of Microsoft TEALS and Shannon Thissen from the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, were already headed down to represent their organizations.

Because of the holiday, traffic was light, but when we arrived, the hallway was bursting with other advocates, including folks from Washington STEM, Minecraft Education, students and teachers from around the state (including the amazing teacher and policy advocates Juan Lozano), and other members of the CS education community. There was such a great energy in the hallway and the hearing room, as it was most people’s (including mine!) first time in the capital testifying on legislation.

Senator Wellman, the chair of the education committee, started the first hour with four presentations from organizations (Washington STEM, Microsoft TEALS, the Minecraft Education product manager, and the Tacoma School of the Arts). I suspect the senator’s goal was to give her committee some common ground before considering the legislation. The presentations had a decidedly corporate feel, but were full of great content from teachers and students.

When we got to the public testimony part of the session, things moved fast. There were two other bills to discuss, each with their own public testimony and discussion. By the time we got to 5088, there were 8 people to testify and just 25 minutes left. Shannon from OSPI had said most people get 3–5 minutes, so I was worried I’d be on the shorter end. It was worse that than: Senator Wellman gave us just 1 minute.

While others testified, I quickly marked up my 3–5 minute testimony, selecting the key points, outlining a three part abridged version of my testimony, covering four points, 15 seconds each:

  • I’m a tenured professor that studies CS education, a CS teacher, and a father of a daughter in an AP CS class.
  • Equity. I grew up a poor kid in a wealthy school. I was was lucky to have a CS teacher to mentor me. It changed my life; every Washington state student should have that chance, but most don’t.
  • Competition. As I tech entrepreneur, I’ve interviewed and hired a lot of software developers in Seattle; virtually all of them are from other states and other countries, not Washington state. That’s simply wrong.
  • Demand. Parents, teachers, and students want CS in their schools. And our Washington institutions of higher education want to prepare CS teachers to give it to them. Let’s pass this law and make everyone happy.

It didn’t have nearly the depth or detail I wanted to share, nor some of the more rhetorically powerful statements, but I did end after exactly 60 seconds. As did the Code.org rep and student that followed me.

After that, and a brief final closing word by Senator Wellman, the gavel was down and the hearing was over. There were a few minutes to chat afterwards, but we were hurried out by staff to make room for a hearing for a completely different committee. We said our goodbyes, and just like that, we were all back on I-5, headed home.

Upon reflection, it all went by so quickly. And despite all that time watching those ten state senators listen, I learned so little about their position on the bill. Senator Wellman, as a co-sponsor of the bill, was clearly supportive, and many of the others (even the republicans), seemed attentive. But will it pass committee? Will the state house hold a public hearing too? How will the text of the law have to change between now and then? What do I have to do to further advocate for it to change?

And if it does pass, how are we going to train all of these teachers by 2022?

Laws are rarely perfect. There’s no more perfect metaphor than making sausage. There are so many different perspectives and ideas that get combined into writing just a few short paragraphs. And these few select words may shape the course offerings of hundreds of high schools, a thousand teachers, and tens of thousands of students. Just a sentence could create tens of thousands of hours of work for me — work I want to do — along with hundreds of thousands of work for others. And as complex as this is, I’m not sure there’s any better way to try to distill the perspectives of such a diverse state.

While I wait to see the bill’s fate, I’ll return to my normal gig of teaching future designers and engineers, inventing the future of CS teaching, and overseeing an incredible undergraduate degree and community at the UW iSchool. I’ll have to trust our elected representatives to do their job right, just like they’re trusting me. As it should be in a democracy.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.

Andy J. Ko

Written by

Associate Professor @UW_iSchool, Chief Scientist+Co-Founder @answerdash. Parent, feminist, scientist, teacher, inventor, programmer, human.

Bits and Behavior

This is the blog for the Code & Cognition lab, directed by professor Andy Ko, Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Here we reflect on what software is, what effects it's having on the world, and our role as public intellectuals in help civilization make sense of code.