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Public advocate hopeful seeks boost with coding education bill

Reshma Saujani, a candidate for public advocate, wants to place computer science classes in every public high school in her first term. But since the power of the elected office she’s seeking is limited, Saujani said today that she’s hoping a bill in Albany will help advance her cause.

New York City’s computer science offerings are on the rise, with the Department of Education set to launch programs in 20 schools this fall. But most courses don’t count toward graduation unless they are part of a state-certified career and technical education sequence. Saujani said the rule reduces the incentive for students to take computer science as an elective.

A new bill sponsored by Andrew Hevesi, a Queens assemblyman, would seek to change that by giving the state Board of Regents authority to allow computer science classes to count for math and science credits.

“If [students] know that it would fulfill a math or science requirement, it’s easier than if they were trying to bring it in as an elective,” Saujani said at a press conference outside Forest Hills High School.

The event comes a day after Saujani — a former hedge fund lawyer, deputy to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and one-time candidate for U.S. Congress — polled last in the race for public advocate, at 4 percent. City Councilwoman Letitia James led the field with 17 percent, followed by Catherine Guerriero, a professor, at 16 percent. State Senator Daniel Squadron was third with 8 percent.

Expanding computer science education in schools is an unusual education priority for a public advocate, whose office runs on a shoestring budget of about $3 million and is little more than a bully pulpit. Its role is mainly to serve as a government watchdog, though the public advocate is also the next in line if the mayor is unable to serve.

De Blasio, who is running for mayor, has sued the city over disciplinary data and scrutinized Mayor Bloomberg’s schools policies, including building co-locations, special education reforms, and anti-bullying policies. James, who has taken an aggressive stance on charter school co-locations, has said that she would seek to keep parents informed about how education policies are affecting their children. Squadron has not released his education platform, a spokesman said.

Ever since the office was formally created in 1994, critics have questioned if it should exist because of its makeshift job responsibilities. But Saunjani said she thought the office’s undefined role in city government was an opportunity to advocate for an issue that gets little attention.

“I actually think the public advocate has an open mandate,” said Saujani, who is also the founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that enrolls female students in summer computer science classes, and an inspiration for the UFT’s new Teachers Who Code program. “To me, it’s exactly the place where you have to facilitate and build these pilot programs.”

The bill is not being actively supported by the State Education Department, which Saujani said was not consulted when the bill was written. The department has sought to promote computer science curriculum mainly through career and technical education programs.

Mike Zamansky, a computer science teacher who joined Saujani at the press conference, said he had been able get the computer science classes he teaches at Stuyvesant High School counted as math classes, though a “fuzzy technicality.” But he said Hevesi’s legislation would give the subject the credibility it deserves.

“This would say it’s just as important as math, it’s just as important as science, it’s just as important as biology — which it should be,” Zamansky said.