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New education chief played key role in charter, MCAS debates

James A. Peyser
James A. PeyserHandout

James A. Peyser has been a high-ranking education official under four Republican governors, watching over the rollout of charter schools and the evolution of the MCAS testing system.

Now, when Charlie Baker reclaims the state’s top job for his party after eight years of Democratic rule, Peyser will return to a key policymaking role as the state continues to debate some of the same issues he faced in his previous tenure.

His appointment as education secretary, announced Tuesday, cements a longstanding relationship with Baker. Both have been leaders of the conservative-leaning Pioneer Institute. Both served on the state Board of Education. Both were even mentioned as potential re-election challengers to then-Senator John F. Kerry in 2002.

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Peyser has been alongside Baker since soon after the governor-elect’s November victory, serving as leader of the transition effort. As education secretary, Peyser will be the administration’s point man on education issues ranging from kindergarten to the state’s public colleges and universities.

READ MORE: Baker names education secretary, fills two other posts

He has long been an advocate for the expansion of charter schools, a topic that made him a controversial candidate for education commissioner during the administration of Governor Paul Cellucci.

That position, which is appointed by the Board of Education and oversees the K-12 system, eventually went to then-Acting Commissioner David P. Driscoll. But Peyser, a member of the board, became chairman in 1999.

His well-known predecessor John Silber stepped down as part of a deal to resolve that impasse.

At the time, Peyser said that he believed in the role of the state in education, but supported measures to monitor programs and make sure they’re effective. In a Globe interview, he described children as the “customers ... and not part of the system, and they need to be given options.”

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After Jane M. Swift became acting governor in 2001, she brought in Peyser as education adviser. He kept the position as board chairman, an unsalaried job, but left his role at the Pioneer institute.

While Peyser was leading the board, Massachusetts was grappling with the impending introduction of the MCAS as a graduation requirement in 2003 after several years of testing.

Later that year, under Governor Mitt Romney, Peyser left his role as education adviser. He stayed on atop the board of education, where he continued his push to hold schools accountable for student performance on tests.

“If we don’t set an ambitious challenge, we’re going to excuse performance that’s unacceptable,” Peyser said at a 2005 meeting in which he advocated a three-year deadline to get failing schools to a level at which half their students performed at grade level in English and Math.

Without a paying role with the state administration, Peyser took a position with the NewSchools Venture Fund, which invests in groups — both for-profit and non-profit — that restructure underperforming schools.

He faced some criticism of his dual roles. according to a 2005 Boston Herald article, which quoted opponents of his efforts to accelerate the process by which charters could get involved in the workings of underperforming schools.

Peyser said he faced no conflict of interest because his group didn’t have projects in the state, and that he wouldn’t profit if it did.

Peyser left the education board in 2006, but continued to be vocal about charter schools as a political issue.

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In a Globe article that came in the wake of a Democratic sweep of New England in the 2008 elections, the Republican Peyser wrote that education policy could have cross-aisle appeal.

“Promoting charter schools appeals to conservatives, but it also appeals to low-income families who tend to lean left,” he wrote at the time. “Ending public subsidies for favored industries, like biotech, movies, and trade shows, reinforces the conservative belief in free markets, but it also responds to liberal concerns about fairness. Issues like these can broaden the base, not circumscribe it.”


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.