The state of Arkansas and Microsoft signed a memorandum of understanding on Monday to further the instruction of computer science in schools. Under the agreement Microsoft, with no cost to the state, would help with professional development for computer science teachers in addition to hosting a range of workshops and events for students.
Speaking at the state Capitol the company’s vice president for governmental affairs, Fred Humphries, said it’s not a large investment but it’s an important one.
“The whole goal is to expose. Arkansas is leading on that by taking a step that one might say is a baby step but it’s an important step of building a foundation and making sure the young children of Arkansas are exposed to computer science, STEM, and the digital skills of the future,” said Humphries.
Governor Asa Hutchinson placed the agreement, branded as a Digital Alliance, in the context of his push to offer computer science classes to every student.
“Some schools have a lot of energy and some schools need more energy. Usually the additional energy would come from a private sector partner who brings greater expertise, practical world experience in what coding means in the real world,” said the Republican governor.
Microsoft officials could not cite a dollar amount for the investment of personnel but say the company’s never had a similar memorandum of understanding with any other state.
Education Commissioner Johnny Key said the MOU is about more than just developing a strong workforce for Microsoft and others.
“It goes well beyond that,” said Key. “It’s about preparing our students to be the creators, the innovators, the entrepreneurs of the future.”
Microsoft’s investment, mostly of personnel time, comes a year after the company condemned states like Arkansas that passed so-called religious freedom laws. In 2015 the company signed on to a letter from the Human Rights Campaign that described such measures as discriminatory to LGBT people. The letter warned that economic opportunities wouldn’t come so easily for states like Arkansas.
- “These state laws set a dangerous precedent that stifles investment and economic growth by jeopardizing a state’s status as a welcoming place for employees to live and thrive, undermining the success of a business at large.
- It is unreasonable for job creators to recruit a diverse workforce from states that encourage businesses to discriminate against our community of employees or consumers.”
But Microsoft’s VP Humphries said the restricted state of LGBT rights in Arkansas compared to elsewhere was not a consideration in launching the Digital Alliance.
“You have a lot of different factors that you look at as you make different investments and clearly in this particular case we’re making an investment in the people, in the students, in the youth in Arkansas,” said Humphries. “There’s a lot of different things that you process, different aspects there, and I separate that out.”
Asked by KUAR if it was a consideration "at all," Humphries responded "no, it was not a factor."
Arkansas allows employers to discriminate based on gender identity and sexual orientation. The state Department of Education recently rejected federal guidance on transgender access to facilities like bathrooms. Microsoft on the other hand has advocacy groups for LGBT employees within its corporate structure in addition to public advocacy efforts.
The Human Rights Campaign Arkansas office declined to comment on the partnership at this time.