Governor Nathan Deal, Georgia Flickr/Richard Lacey

Gov. Nathan Deal pledged a retooling of Georgia's education system on Monday that would better prepare Georgia students for computer programming courses as high-paying jobs increasingly demand highly technical skills.

The governor’s policy proposal would allow students who take computer programming courses to get core credit for their high school diplomas and toward higher education applications. Most of those courses now are considered electives in Georgia high schools.

Deal, who outlined the plan in a sparkling new Georgia Tech computing center, said recruiters have heard a common refrain from firms looking to move or expand their business here: “They need more computer programmers and software developers, and they need to begin teaching students before they head to college.”

The proposal comes less than three months before voters head to the polls to decide whether Deal gets another term in office. He faces Democrat Jason Carter, an Atlanta state senator who says Deal has failed to adequately focus on education.

“It’s not a bad idea, but after years of shortchanging our schools by billions of dollars, Governor Deal will need more than small-bore election-year promises to show he’s interested in helping students,” Carter spokesman Bryan Thomas said. “This will do little to help the students in rural schools who don’t have adequate computers or Internet connections.”

A ‘carrot’ for computer courses

The governor has outlined few specifics about how he would improve education if given a second term, beyond a vow to recalculate Georgia’s decades-old school funding formula and a pledge to give top teachers a pay raise. Much of his focus has been on a program called the Complete College Georgia Initiative to boost the number of college graduates.

It’s estimated that by 2020 about 60 percent of jobs in the state will require some form of college degree or certificate beyond a high school diploma, but only about 42 percent of young Georgians currently have those credentials. Deal has pledged to increase the state’s college completion numbers and produce an additional 250,000 college graduates by 2020.

Deal said more than half of the state’s projected job growth in science, technology, engineering and math fields will require computer programming skills. In contrast, he said, less than 1 percent of all students take advanced placement computer science courses.

“While these high-paying jobs are available,” Deal said, “few Georgia students actually learn these valuable skills.”

The governor is the first to say he’s no technology savant (he often calls a certain social media platform “tweeter” and compared computer programming to a foreign language). But he points to education advisers who have helped devise the plan, including Chris Klaus, a tech entrepreneur who was tapped to serve on a state higher education commission.

Klaus, a key Georgia Tech benefactor, said the move would give students a new “carrot” to take complicated courses — and teachers an incentive to teach them.

“We are on the cutting edge of putting Georgia on the map from a technology standpoint,” said Klaus, whose name adorns the new science center where the announcement was made.

Deal’s proposal would require little money — his office said it had no estimate — and approval from the state Board of Education and the Board of Regents. The outcome is not in doubt; the governor appoints members to both those panels.

Incremental initiatives

The move comes as the governor unveils incremental initiatives targeting specific groups of students and career paths.

The governor this summer promised a more streamlined process for the estimated 1.2 million young Georgians with college credits to go back to school, and he expanded grant funding for students majoring in high-demand fields. He also trumpeted a new military academic center close to Robins Air Force Base to train and educate veterans on new skills.

Higher education officials also expect Deal to expand a program that provides grant funding for students majoring in high-demand fields to include courses in the film industry. His office recently reported that the film industry generated a $5.1 billion economic impact during the last fiscal year.

Much of the campaign rhetoric on higher education, though, has focused on changes to the HOPE scholarship that once cut HOPE awards for all but the top students. Some of the cuts were eventually restored, allowing students with lower grade-point averages to still benefit from state program.

Deal has long said those initial cuts “saved” the HOPE Scholarship, whose lottery-backed funding he feared couldn’t keep up with growing enrollment. Carter says Deal’s changes failed, and the Democrat has sponsored legislation that would restore an income cap on HOPE recipients.

The two campaigns have also clashed on how to boost funding for k-12 education.

Deal promises to redirect school funding to where it’s most needed and points to this year’s budget, which includes an increase of more than $300 million in school funding. Carter said Deal has “dismantled” the education system by not reversing austerity cuts to education dating to 2003, though he won’t say specifically how he’ll fill that gap.

©2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)