Another Friday, Another Goodbye, and a Big Opportunity

I hate goodbyes, especially when I have to issue them back to back to people who I think have done good work. Late last week, we talked a little about Commissioner Rich Crandall’s abrupt decision to resign from his position after only a few months on the job. Now we’re saying goodbye to Douglas County’s stalwart superintendent, Dr. Liz Fagen.

Dr. Fagen has been with Douglas County for six years. That’s a pretty good run if you consider that the typical tenure of a superintendent is only about three years—and that’s in districts far less venomous and politically charged than Douglas County. While there is research out there finding that superintendents are not the biggest influences on district performance (see the study linked in the prior sentence), no one can argue with the fact that Dr. Fagen has overseen some dramatic and successful changes in Douglas County.

Under her watch, the school district began the first locally administered voucher program in the nation. It then shepherded that program, without the aid of public funding, through legal challenges to the steps of the United States Supreme Court. The district also implemented a rigorous evaluation system and performance-based pay structure designed to treat teachers like professionals rather than widgets, forged ahead with student-based budgeting to push more money and decision-making authority down to the school level, and pushed for sensible collective bargaining reforms—an effort that culminated in the end of the district’s teachers union contract when it became clear that the Douglas County Federation of Teachers wasn’t going to play nice.

Were these reforms controversial? You bet they were. As a general rule, anything that seeks to fundamentally alter the education establishment will be controversial. But nothing worth having comes without a fight, and that truism is as relevant in education as it is in any other context. If we really want public education to evolve into a system of choice, excellence, and opportunity for every student, big changes are needed. As Dr. Fagen can attest, those changes don’t always come easily, and they’re not always implemented flawlessly.

But despite all the vitriol leveled at Dr. Fagen, Douglas County has improved under her leadership. The district’s on-time graduation rate has increased from 81.9 percent in 2009 to a pretty astonishing 90 percent in 2015. It reclaimed its Accredited with Distinction status, the state’s highest district performance rating. And there’s evidence its reforms are working in other ways, as well.

Dr. Fagen has a great many political opponents who love to shriek that she has “destroyed” the district, but the story is clear. In the context of student outcomes, Douglas County improved under the reforms Dr. Fagen helped implement. If her tenure caused harm, it was not to students’ interests. Politically motivated organizations and individuals will no doubt continue their crusade against the district and its leaders. Observers should ask themselves an important question: If these folks aren’t able to make the case that student interests have been damaged in Douglas County, exactly whose interests are they concerned about?

Douglas County has been the subject of a lot of controversy recently, and it is quickly becoming apparent that we are witnessing the rollout of the same “playbook” put to devastating use in Jefferson County and other districts last year. Those folks will undoubtedly see Dr. Fagen’s departure as a victory. I see it differently.

There is now a tremendous opportunity in Douglas County School District. Dr. Fagen’s departure is disappointing, but it also represents an opportunity to move past the personality-based attacks that so often define anti-reform politics at the district level, and instead redirect focus to where it should be: Squarely on the students. I have no idea who Dougco will pick as its next superintendent, but I hope whoever it is will, like Dr. Fagen, be willing to endure the slings and arrows that come along with meaningful education reform.