Remember when we Arkansans often proclaimed, “Thank God for Mississippi,” in an effort to assuage our embarrassment at being ranked next-to-last in various state-by-state rankings, particularly those dealing with education, health care or poverty?
We ought to quit using that old adage to make us feel better about ourselves.
For one thing, it has to be pretty offensive to the folks from the Magnolia State. Why, I even know personally some Mississippi-born and/or Mississippi-educated professionals who live in Northeast Arkansas. I don’t find those business owners, physicians or lawyers to be at the bottom of any list, but instead, in virtually all cases to be leaders.
Using that old stereotype not only is a tacit acknowledgement that we’re sitting near the bottom of some negative indicator or other but also serves to increase the size of that Arkie chip on our collective shoulder. One must wonder what impact this has on businesses looking for a state to relocate to or expand or for families looking for a place to live, work and go to school.
Saying we’re pretty bad, but we’re a little better than the only state below us isn’t much of a sales pitch. Speaking of sales pitches, remember how 15 years ago Mississippi beat us at the 11th hour in both states’ quest for a Toyota assembly plant that we in eastern Arkansas were certain was coming to Marion? I’ll wager Haley Barbour and crew didn’t tell the Japanese automaker “Mississippi is behind Arkansas in some national rankings by just a couple of points, so we wouldn’t be all that terrible a place for your factory if y’all really want to come here.”
Given that we and our neighbor to the south have traditionally battled it out for last place in many national rankings, it was refreshing to see the state of Arkansas grab the national spotlight for its efforts in computer science education. Last month, Gov. Asa Hutchinson hosted Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster and education commissioners from a number of other states for what Hutchinson said was the first national computer science education conference held in Arkansas.
Hutchinson made computer science education one of his core initiatives when he was campaigning for the governor’s office in 2014. He said he wanted to ensure that every high school in the state offered a computer coding course. He told Wired magazine in 2015 that the 2014 election was probably the first time in the history of politics that the word “coding” was used in a political commercial.
Hutchinson said he got the idea for making computer coding instruction a mandatory offering in every high school from his 11-year-old granddaughter. She wrote an app that the Hutchinson team used in the campaign. That only makes sense – if you need an app installed or your TV remote re-set, summon a tech-friendly child or grandchild.
Arkansas became the first state in the nation – not the 49th or 50th – to pass what Wired called “a truly comprehensive law” requiring all public and charter high schools to offer computer science classes to their students, ahead of computer meccas California and New York. While other states may have put in place requirements to offer what was termed computer science before Arkansas did so, those classes may have been merely teaching keyboarding or learning to use social media, not at all like writing code.
Arkansas was also the first state to create a state-level position focused on computer science education. The state has a computer science director. At least a dozen other states have followed Arkansas’ lead in creating similar positions.
Among those in attendance at last month’s conference was Hadi Partovi, founder and CEO of the computer science advocacy group Code.org. He called Hutchinson “the most passionate governor in the country for computer science,” noting that Arkansas was the first state to meet all nine of Code.org’s policy recommendations. Partovi called Arkansas “a beacon in our country and even globally.”
Partovi is no stranger to Hutchinson’s initiatives. In the 2015 Wired article that dealt with Arkansas’ groundbreaking effort to teach high school students coding, Partovi noted that there is a national shortage of both computer engineers and software engineers. Partovi, who taught himself to code using a Commodore 64 computer, says that when he travels, he talks about Arkansas because people don’t expect a small state to lead the United States in this effort.
For Hutchinson, providing computer science education in Arkansas high schools is a way to ensure that Arkansas is competitive in keeping jobs and attracting new ones. Whether it’s a manufacturing plant that uses robotics or a knowledge-based industry that Arkansas seeks to recruit or retain, that company will need computer programmers, Hutchinson noted. If we can’t supply them, he said, they’ll go elsewhere.
Though Arkansas is considered the national leader in public school computer science education, it is clear that there remains much work to be done in our state. Code.org notes that there are more than 2,400 open jobs in computing in Arkansas and that the average salary for a computing occupation in Arkansas is more than $72,000, significantly more than the $40,500 average for other jobs. Of the 350 computer science college graduates in 2017, only 15 percent were female. We must do better.
We should continue the computer education push so that other folks say, “Thank God for Arkansas” for leading the way.
Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.