Back in January, President Obama asked Congress to set aside $4 billion for computer science education, in what would have been the federal government’s largest targeted funding for promoting the subject in schools. The proposal seemed designed to generate more headlines than actual funding — and now, nearly a year down the road, that largely seems to be what’s happened.
In a release on Monday highlighting what the administration’s “Computer Science for All” initiative has accomplished this year, the White House presented a long list of actions taken by states, cities, businesses, and nonprofits. In fact, few of those achievements stemmed from the federal government’s direct involvement. Congress never set aside the requested $4 billion, meaning the highlight of Obama’s computer science initiative — a windfall of federal funding — never came to pass.
“The president's proposals for funding really are requests to Congress, and as we all know in the last few years, Congress hasn't really been reacting very well to what the president requests,” says Hadi Partovi, founder of Code.org, a nonprofit focused on computer science education. Congress has yet to even pass a budget this year, so Obama’s proposal has really gone nowhere.
That’s not to say the federal government has offered no funding whatsoever. Though a far cry from $4 billion, millions in funding for computer science education initiatives have been allocated through government agencies.
The National Science Foundation announced plans to direct $120 million in funding, to be doled out across five years, to computer science education research. An initial $25 million was given in grants this year, and another $20 million worth of grants opened up this week. This funding won’t strictly place computer science education in schools, but it will be used to research how best to teach computer science in schools that choose to adopt it. The agency behind AmeriCorps will also give out $17 million over three years to support teacher training in computer science education. And a law passed at the tail end of 2015 opened up Department of Education funding for computer science.
These agencies are generally welcome to do with their money as they’d like, but a Trump administration could move the goalposts. If Congress significantly alters the NSF’s funding or gives it cause to change priorities — and there is, perhaps, some reason to be fearful of that — the agency may have to go back on its $120 million promise.
Kumar Garg, an assistant director at the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, also cited the AP computer science course that launched nationwide this year, thanks in part to the NSF, as one of the administration’s achievements. “We've appreciated the bipartisan support we've seen on this important issue, and hope that Congress will continue to take steps to support computer science,” Garg wrote in an email to The Verge. He said that “more than 500 organizations” had responded to the president’s call to action.
In any case, the achievements the White House highlights as occurring since January largely don’t stem from NSF or AmeriCorps funding. The White House cites things like Google launching a computer science career prep program, which happened in 2015, and 27 governors calling for federal funding of CS education, which occurred via a petition organized by Code.org and the Computer Science Education Coalition, a group made up primarily of dozens of tech companies, from Apple to Zynga.
That means most of what’s actually happened in the past year has been state and local progress. As Partovi puts it, “The White House has done an important service calling attention to the great work already being done by others.”
But enabling others, to whatever small extent it could, may well have been the White House’s real goal here — certainly Obama knew that $4 billion was never going to happen. “I think there was hope at the White House that a call to action in January would produce a lot of local movement by showing how it can be done, how it's a priority. It's one of those things that districts should be thinking about all over the country,” says Michael Preston, executive director of CSNYC, a nonprofit helping New York City implement its plan to have computer science education available to all students by 2025.
Preston says that because education “is mostly a local enterprise,” the federal government has more of an agenda-setting role. And Obama’s attention to computer science education, he says, does end up helping local organizers. “It's very meaningful,” he says. “You have the president naming computer science education in the State of the Union address in the first five minutes this year. That's huge.”
Partovi echoes that sentiment as well. “The president's announcement of the importance of computer science symbolically amplifies and increases the level of attention on this important field,” he says. “So using the bully pulpit of the president to say that computer science is no longer an optional skill, it's a basic skill, that’s a message that educators around the country and even around the world heard, and that makes a very strong symbolic difference in terms of what schools do.”
Cities and states have increasingly been moving to include computer science education in their curriculum over the past several years. In addition to New York City, Chicago and San Francisco are also implementing computer science in all schools. Last year, Arkansas passed a law requiring computer science education in all public and charter high schools statewide, and this year, Virginia did the same for public K-12 schools.
This week alone, for 2016’s Computer Science Education Week, Code.org expects 50 million students to complete an “Hour of Code” lesson — an hour-long tutorial meant to be a fun and simple way of teaching programming basics to students. Code.org created and popularized the format, but they’re now available from companies like Microsoft and Google, taught in school classrooms, and available through workshops at locations like Apple Stores.
Partovi is still holding out hope that federal funding will come through Congress to help the cause. It’s “definitely a disappointment” that funds weren’t allocated this year, he says, but he’s encouraged by the fact that Congress didn’t explicitly shoot down the idea either, leaving open the possibility that federal funding could still come in the future. “The idea of funding computer science is alive.”
The Computer Science Education Coalition, which includes Code.org, is now pushing for the much smaller goal of $250 million in federal funding for computer science education. That’ll be enough, the group says, to reach 3.6 million students in a year. The coalition formed in March and intends to continue pressing Congress for funding next year.
“Many of the same senior members of office are still there,” Partovi says. “And we’re all waiting to see the Trump administration’s view.”