Boston education commissioner Mitchell Chester dies of cancer at 65

June 28, 2017 GMT

Tears flowed at a state education board meeting yesterday as the unexpected death of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester Monday night as he battled cancer was announced.

It was only two months ago that Chester told staff he’d be cutting back on his schedule to deal with his illness. Elementary and Secondary Education Chairman Paul Sagan said the board had fully expected him to be back in September.

Chester, 65, of Winchester, leaves behind a wife and five children.

Deputy commissioner Jeff Wulfson will be appointed acting commissioner.

Chester, who has served as commissioner since 2008, was credited with leading education reform in the state, making public schools here some of the best in the nation, board and staff members said. He was the longest serving of the country’s current chief state school officers.

Education Secretary James Peyser said, “In some ways, a lot of attention gets paid to the leadership when change is beginning to happen, but when all is said and done it’s the leaders who take us through, over time, to sustain the changes and to bring them to the next level that make those changes permanent and that deliver the kind of impact on children, families and people’s lives that have lasting and deeper effects. I think Mitchell was that leader for us, and we were very lucky and blessed to have him with us,”

Sagan told the Herald he was always impressed by Chester’s poise and grace under fire — even as he was a controversial figure at times.

“Mitchell would listen to everyone and not lose his cool. He said ‘these people are concerned about children and education. I want to listen and learn,’” Sagan said. “He came every day focused on what is best for kids and families.”

Under Chester, Massachusetts took a greater role in overhauling struggling school districts — taking over in Lawrence, Holyoke and Southbridge. The state also moved to the so-called next-generation MCAS rather than work with the national PARCC consortium.

Board members also noted that Chester pushed to protect LGBTQ students long before his counterparts across the country.

“We’re all shocked,” said board member Margaret McKenna. “He’s been a part of the fabric of education in Massachusetts for so long and during momentous changes.”

Board member Michael Moriarty said, “The esteem he has held nationally is enormous. It was earned. It was his commitment to improving outcomes for kids. He delivered on that.”

Chester began his career as an elementary school teacher in Connecticut and later served as a middle school assistant principal and district curriculum coordinator. He later moved to the Connecticut Department of Education, and later served in Pennsylvania and Ohio’s education departments.