When the University of South Florida throws in the towel on an elementary school it once considered a "dream opportunity" for at-risk students, it is signaling resignation or defeat. Either one merits the attention of state educators.
The USF/Patel Charter School, in fact, was widely heralded in 1998 as a laboratory for USF's education school and a partnership with low-income neighborhoods near the campus. One top university official told residents at the time: "Everybody who's ever been in education hopes for a chance like this."
That chance came to a curious and abrupt end this week, as university officials canceled their charter and handed over management control to the Hillsborough school district. The school had only weeks earlier received a grade of F from the state, and USF education dean Colleen Kennedy said she saw the need for additional resources that weren't available.
To the credit of both institutions, the students are not being left in the cold. Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia has committed to keep the school running, and has dispatched district administrators there to prepare for opening day.
Kennedy may be right that the per-student funding it receives from the district is not enough for transportation or tutors or other curriculum needs associated with students from impoverished homes. But it is also true that charter schools are paid from the same formula that applies to public schools, and USF has far more advantages than the average charter operator.
Did USF do a poor job of managing its money? Or is the allocation not enough for schools with large numbers of at-risk students? Was USF asleep at the switch, failing to recognize staff turnover and academic shortcomings until it was too late? Or does the state subject schools with at-risk students to an unrealistic assessment?
As the charter-school movement in Florida has grown to some 358 schools serving more than 100,000 students, it has faced its share of financial and academic failures. But this is one case that should capture the attention of state Education Commissioner Eric Smith. If charter schools are to light the path of educational reform, then Florida needs to understand why a university charter would wave the white flag.