Expand K-12 coding through school autonomy, not mandates

Commentary

Expand K-12 coding through school autonomy, not mandates

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel recently called for federal K-12 computer coding requirements after making it mandatory in his city’s school district. As a skill in high demand for a 21st century workforce, instilling coding expertise in more people is objectively good. But is a top-down curriculum mandate the right way to proliferate this essential skill? Nashville’s experience suggests a more effective alternative route.

The key is the funding set-up. Metro Nashville Public Schools use a student-based budgeting formula, where each child’s individual school funding follows them wherever they attend. This system gives principals the autonomy to spend their school’s resources in the best ways to serve to their student bodies.

When a Gallup poll finds that 90 percent of parents see computer science as “a good use of school resources,” principals with the freedom to direct those resources will want to provide coding lessons to attract students and their funding. Most districts only let principals control 5 percent or less of their school’s budget. Without the funding-related signals of parent demand that student-based budgeting provides, it’s easy to see why the same poll found that only 8% of administrators realized computer science was a parent priority.

Nashville’s school-level freedom means that individual principals can structure unique computer science curriculum based on their students’ needs and their staff’s strengths. One school teaches its kids HTML and CSS, which they can apply in drone research with the Nashville Electric Service. Another is teaching JavaScript, which earns college credit. A STEM-focused school makes coding courses one of the graduation requirements. Thanks to an environment of budget autonomy, Nashville students enjoy a diverse array of options to gain useful skills for tomorrow’s workplace.

Imposing a universal curricular mandate for computer science kills the diversity and experimentation which makes these choices meaningful in the first place. These courses arose thanks to an environment of school autonomy, not external requirements. Our tech industry became so successful in the first place because we let it thrive in an environment of permissionless innovation, not because of overregulation. To educate the next generation of innovators, we should instill the same ethos in our school system.

Tyler Koteskey was an education policy analyst at Reason Foundation, a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.