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We, the Tampa Bay school superintendents, think USF made a huge mistake | Column
USF’s surprise changes for its College of Education will have a “devastating impact,” write six superintendents of Tampa Bay’s school districts.

The decision by the University of South Florida to close its undergraduate teacher preparation program is a terrible mistake. It will directly and negatively impact more than 40,000 teachers in the region but also the educational and economic health and quality of life for the entire Tampa Bay region.

The College of Education said it had worked with stakeholders to reimagine itself. Yet, last week’s announcement came as a complete surprise to local public school district superintendents, school boards, other higher education leaders, alumni and the community. And there appears to have been no consideration as to the devastating impact it will have on an already challenging teacher shortage.

Taxpayers invest in publicly funded universities to ensure there are baccalaureate graduates to satisfy the region’s employment needs but also its ambitions. Our communities need teachers who are prepared to positively impact the next generation of learners.

There is no other profession so fundamental to our collective future. Teachers directly influence the quality of life and opportunities for individuals and, by extension, communities. To not invest and support the development of a strong cadre of teachers in a community is antithetical to a community’s future self-interest.

Where USF and the College of Education have gone wrong is to presume the only path to “reimagining” its College of Education was to dramatically reduce its relevance to the communities and taxpayers it serves.

With reduced enrollment and pending budget cuts amid a university aiming for preeminent status, the College of Education has taken the short-sighted and ill-considered way out. In striving to create a graduate-only program, the college seeks to emulate some of the nation’s most elite universities and the cachet that may come with it.

But that does far too little for future generations of Florida school children, the school districts who serve them and the taxpayers who underwrite much of the higher education budget.

We understand there are budget pressures. But there are other ways to economize. School districts are constantly repurposing, rethinking and making difficult budget decisions while also delivering a world-class education to all students, not just those with high SAT scores.

We agree that USF needs to reimagine the College of Education and have been asking for innovative change for years. We have also seen the college struggle amid a revolving door of leadership (six deans in Tampa and five deans in St. Petersburg over the last 10 years). As a result, there have been no significant initiatives or improvements in either the undergraduate or graduate program.

At the same time, entrance requirements continue to escalate, making it more difficult for qualified students to access the college. It should be no surprise that undergrad and graduate enrollment has decreased by 53 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

We also agree that competition is growing in the higher education marketplace, however we believe this is a result of universities not keeping pace. The landscape has changed — but that’s no reason to abandon what should be a primary institutional mission.

Rather, it’s time to reimagine a more robust endeavor aligned with our state’s and community’s needs — most notably a real and significant teacher shortage. Our region desperately needs a public College of Education to step forward with a baccalaureate pathway that is forward thinking, accessible and a national model responsive to the educational and employment needs of the Tampa Bay area.  If that does not happen, might the elimination of the graduate program be far behind?

Reimagining doesn’t happen overnight or in a vacuum. In any organization that seeks to improve, constant adjustments must be made to stay relevant, solvent and productive. Our initial recommendations include:

1. Commit to fully maintain the College of Education undergraduate and graduate programs and thoughtfully examine and emulate top-tiered undergraduate programs around the nation.

2. Establish a meaningful commitment to support and admit students in our region and state who have the passion, grades and commitment to become a teacher.  Become the preeminent college for teachers as this investment will greatly enhance the Tampa Bay economy and job growth.

3. Hire an educational leader who is both capable and committed to building a College of Education that serves as a national model and directly involves district superintendents.

4. Establish performance measures to adhere to, and budget for, world-class teacher preparation with quarterly reports to community stakeholders.

We were heartened to hear that USF’s commitment to school district partners is as strong as ever. We stand ready to have thoughtful, meaningful discussions about alternative pathways forward.

Michael A. Grego is superintendent of Pinellas County Schools and president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Kurt S. Browning is superintendent of Pasco County Schools and immediate past president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Brennan Asplen is superintendent of Sarasota County Schools. Jacqueline M. Byrd is superintendent of Polk County Schools. Addison G. Davis is superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools. Cynthia Saunders is superintendent of Manatee County Schools.

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