Sanders taps Florida education leader Oliva to replace Key as Arkansas’ secretary of education

Sanders taps Florida education leader Oliva to replace Key as Arkansas’ secretary of education

Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Thursday that she will nominate a key official in Florida’s education system as secretary for the Arkansas Department of Education.

During a morning news conference at the Arkansas State University System office, Sanders said she plans to appoint Jacob Oliva as the head of Arkansas’ education system. Sanders, a Republican, also said she intends to work in partnership with the state Board of Education to appoint Oliva to serve in a dual role as commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

Oliva, 48, currently serves as the division of public schools chancellor for the Florida Department of Education. He oversees the teaching and learning of more than 2.9 million students in approximately 3,600 public schools.

“Education is the foundation for success, and with my nominee for Secretary of Education and Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jacob Oliva, we are ready to transform Arkansas education with bold reforms that will empower every kid to succeed,” Sanders said in a news release following the news conference. “Jacob’s proven success increasing student achievement and his experience serving in many educational roles will make him an asset to my administration.”

Oliva will replace Johnny Key, who has served as commissioner of education since 2015 and was named secretary of the Department of Education by Gov. Asa Hutchinson in 2019 as part of the Republican governor’s plan to transform state government.

Over the past several years, Key has overseen the return of the Little Rock School District to local control and schools’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic, implemented new school safety measures, and has been at the center of the debate surrounding teacher pay.

Oliva began his career as a special education teacher and has served in a variety of positions over the past 20 years, including as a principal and superintendent. He said Sanders has the right vision for Arkansas’ education system and that he is excited to get to work to enact it.

“Education is the key to the future, creating opportunity for all, which is why I’ve spent my career implementing successful early learning programs, empowering parents with choices, and investing in career readiness,” Oliva said in the news release. “I am ready to continue that work here in Arkansas and look forward to working with Governor-elect Sanders to build a bright future for our students.”

“We are so proud of the work he has been able to accomplish under the direction and partnership of [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis in the state of Florida, and we know he will be able to bring that same energy and enthusiasm and success here in the state of Arkansas,” Sanders said at the news conference.

Oliva was one of the key figures in Florida’s education system when the state’s Parental Rights in Education law was signed earlier this year.

The law prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade, and was dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law. Republican leaders within Florida contend the law is about allowing parents to decide what their children learn about sexuality and gender and when they learn it.


Thursday’s announcement of Oliva’s appointment drew mixed reactions from a number of public figures on social media.

Arkansas House Education Committee chair Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, said he believes Oliva will be “a good choice.” He said he hopes Oliva will have an open channel of communication with legislators, and lauded Key for his rapport with lawmakers.

“I don’t know a whole lot about [Oliva] other than what I heard today,” Cozart said. “I wasn’t shocked [Sanders] was changing secretaries.”

“I think [Oliva] has probably got some good ideas to go along with Gov.-elect Sanders on education reform,” said Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock.

Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate, lauded Sanders’ choice on Twitter.

“Congratulations to Florida’s own Jacob Oliva,” wrote Bush, the son of former President George H.W. Bush and the younger brother of former President George W. Bush. “Arkansas students, families, and educators will benefit from your experience and leadership. Terrific choice, Gov-elect Sarah Huckabee!”

Others expressed reservations about the appointment.

Arkansas House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said she is worried about the impact of the appointment, citing the Parental Rights in Education law enacted by Florida lawmakers earlier this year.

“I have to say there are some concerns. I certainly don’t want somebody coming into Arkansas and trying to solve problems that don’t exist,” McCullough said.


Key declined to comment when approached by an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter during Thursday’s news conference, saying he wanted the focus to be on the new administration, but he sent an email to Department of Education staff after the announcement was made.

“Serving Governor Hutchinson and the State of Arkansas as the commissioner and secretary of education has been the highlight of my nearly 30 years of public service,” he said in the email. “It has been my honor to work with you all. I wish the secretary-designate all success, because the success of the new secretary and the continued success of this agency means success for students and parents across Arkansas. I trust that you will strive to make our vision a reality, that every Arkansan is equitably prepared, supported, and inspired to succeed in school, career, community, and life.”

Over the past several years, Key has overseen the return of the Little Rock School District to local control and schools’ responses to the covid-19 pandemic, implemented new school safety measures, and has been at the center of the debate surrounding teacher pay.

The Pulaski County Special, Little Rock, Helena-West Helena and Pine Bluff school districts are some of the districts in which Key served as final decision-maker during his tenure, sometimes with great resistance from the districts. Some Little Rock teachers, for example, went on a one-day strike in November 2019 and later staged a sick-out in an effort to win back local control of what was then a state-controlled system. The state ultimately ended the district’s recognition of the teacher union as a bargaining agent for the employees.

Sanders thanked Key during Thursday’s news conference for his work over the past several years and credited Key for laying the foundation that her administration will use to implement her education reform.

“He is a phenomenal person who has led our state with heart and integrity, and we are so thankful for your service and all that you have done for the education community across Arkansas,” Sanders said as the crowd gave Key a round of applause.

Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Education Administrators, praised the “tremendous job” Key has done on multiple initiatives but said “change is inevitable” and that he looks forward to working with Oliva, who “will be an asset to our state.”

Hernandez cited Key as being “instrumental in bringing reading and computer science to the forefront of educators’ practice” in Arkansas. The reading initiative “will continue to pay dividends as time continues” and the number of students taking at least one computer science course has increased by more than 2000% since the 2014-15 school year, said the head of the organization whose members include superintendents and principals.

Sanders said her education plan, called Arkansas LEARNS, prioritizes literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and school safety, and cited the plan as one of the reasons Oliva was hired.

“Through my Arkansas LEARNS plan, we will expand access to quality education for every kid growing up in our state, empower parents, not government bureaucrats, and prepare students for the workforce, not government dependency, so everyone has a shot at a better life right here in Arkansas,” Sanders said in the news release.

Sanders said she and Oliva plan to work together closely to achieve the education reform she touted during her campaign for governor.

“We are going to work in partnership with [our legislators] to frankly deliver what Arkansas needs and what Arkansas students deserve,” Sanders said during the news conference.

Carol Fleming, president of the Arkansas Education Association, which is the state’s largest teacher union, said the association has a long history of working with leaders of the state Department of Education.

“We had a very cordial and collaborative working relationship with Secretary Key. We thank him for his service, and wish him well in his future endeavors,” Fleming said in an email response to a request for comment on the transition. “We look forward to developing a relationship with Governor-Elect Sanders’ appointee for Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva.”

Fleming said she anticipates several opportunities in the near future to meet with Oliva “to discuss how we will continue to focus on our vision of providing great public schools that prepare our children to grow and develop so they can live in an interdependent and diverse world.

“This is the same vision we focused on during the tenure of Secretary Johnny Key and we are excited to share it with incoming Secretary Jacob Oliva,” she said.

Oliva said that when he saw the initiatives Arkansas is planning under Sanders’ administration he knew he wanted to be a part of it.

“We know that it’s going to be incredible because the outcome is better schools, and at the end of the day our job as leaders is to make sure every child has the opportunity to be put on the pathway to success to meet their needs and their family’s needs, and make sure that not only are they ready for postsecondary attainment, but they have the skills to be successful in life,” he said during the news conference. “And the initiatives that we are about to roll out and work together and collaborate on will do just that.”

Oliva said early literacy is a key piece of the education system that must be done right.

“The number of students that come to kindergarten and are not kindergarten-ready creates a big burden on a school and school district,” he said during the news conference. “Working on the early learning environment and making sure that students are coming to school kindergarten-ready and by third grade getting 90% to 100% of students at or above grade-level reading is a critical part of this mission.”

Oliva said that is important because kindergarten through third grade is about learning to read, and by fourth grade it should be about reading to learn.

“If we are still not getting it right on learning how to read, then we are not doing our job for setting them up for success in other grades,” he said.


Oliva said he also wants to focus on transparency.

“Parents have the right to know what their children are being taught, what textbooks are being used, and what access they have in school libraries, and it’s up to the school districts to share that information and be transparent,” he said. “This goes back to those opportunities of creating safe learning spaces and making sure a child is on the path to being successful.

“In order to do that, school districts need to be transparent and should know what is going on in those classrooms.”

Oliva said when it comes to state or local control, he believes in local decision-making, but said the state must set the standards schools should follow.

“Teachers are experts. Teachers know their students. Teachers need to be empowered to create the structural decisions and use the strategies that best meet the needs of their students,” he said. “Looking into the curriculum that gets adopted by the local school board, that needs to be aligned with those standards we set and we should be teaching those expectations.”

Sanders agreed.

“We want the most local control we can possibly have, and that starts with putting the power back in the hands of the parents,” she said.

Oliva said one of the great things about education today is that it allows parents to have options when it comes to their children’s education.

“Whether that is through charter school, private school, a virtual school or a local school district, parents have a right to have a seat at the table and look at opportunities available for them,” he said during the news conference. “And if we can expand choice options for families, then that is a win for our students.”

Sanders objected during the news conference when a reporter said one of Sanders’ main focuses during the campaign was school choice, saying instead that it was parental empowerment.

“I think those two things are very different,” Sanders said. “We need to make sure the control is in the actual hands of parents to make the best decision possible about how their student can best learn and be on the pathway to prosperity.”

Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  photo  Jacob Oliva takes questions Thursday after Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders (background) announced Oliva as her nominee for state education secretary. Oliva will replace Johnny Key, who has headed the department since 2015. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)