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After 4 Years Of 'Constant Change', State Education Board Chair Steps Down

Members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Courtesy of the department)
Members of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Courtesy of the department)
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After four years as chair of Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), tech executive and philanthropist Paul Sagan announced Tuesday that he’ll be stepping down effective immediately.

“It’s time for me to move on,” Sagan said in his public comments, which caught observers by surprise. He added: “Change is the only constant here.”

State Secretary of Education Jim Peyser announced that Gov. Charlie Baker had already chosen Katherine Craven to succeed Sagan as chair. Craven has worked in the state Legislature and at school building authorities. Currently a senior administrator at Babson College, she has occupied the “business seat” on BESE since her appointment by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014.

Matt Hills, the former chair of the Newton School Committee, will take Sagan's seat on the board.

Sagan took over the board when large questions surrounding curriculum and charter schools were looming. Four years later, those questions have been largely resolved, but Sagan said much work remains to promote equity in public education.

When Baker appointed Sagan in the spring of 2015, he cited his “decades of executive and philanthropic experience” at tech firms like Akamai and in venture capital at General Catalyst Partners. He asked Sagan in particular to oversee the integration of the national “Common Core” standards into state frameworks.

Eventually, state officials decided to split the difference: not adopting the Common Core-aligned PARCC exam, but instead rolling out a “hybrid” of the PARCC and Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessement System (MCAS) exams, sometimes called “MCAS 2.0.” This spring will be the first in which all Massachusetts students take that new exam.

And a year after his appointment, Sagan found himself embroiled in a statewide debate over Question 2, which would have lifted the state's cap on charter schools.

Sagan — a longtime charter school supporter — courted controversy by publicly contributing $100,000 to support the expansion. And later, when the state’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance censured an organization behind the charter push for disguising the identities of its supporters, it was revealed that Sagan had made an additional $500,000 in undisclosed contributions to the cause.

The state’s largest teachers’ union called for Sagan to resign over the contributions, but he defended them in the Boston Globe — even as he apologized for the apparent secrecy.

Perhaps Sagan's greatest legacy will be the appointment of Jeff Riley as the state's commissioner of education after the untimely passing of former commissioner Mitchell Chester in 2017.

During Tuesday's meeting, Peyser thanked Sagan for his service, calling him “thoughtful and respectful,” adding, “You’re willing to make tough decisions and you’re willing to stand by them.”

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