The State Board of Education unanimously approved former state Sen. Johnny Key to be the state’s new education commissioner Wednesday.
The state’s top education commissioner serves at the pleasure of the governor but is hired by the State Board. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced in a press conference March 2 that Key was his preferred choice for that position.
Key, a Republican, served as a representative and senator from Mountain Home from 2003 until 2014. He chaired the Senate Education Committee, where he was known as a conciliator. He resigned his position to work as associate vice president for university relations for the University of Arkansas System.
"I’m excited," Key said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics. "You know, this is a huge task, and I’ve been mentally preparing myself at the same time of going through the session and trying to maintain my commitment to the U of A and the job I was doing there, but now it’s time to jump right in and get up to speed on what’s going on there, and I’m ready to go."
He starts the job, "Officially tomorrow, but in essence, I’m starting right now," he said. Key said his first act as commissioner would be to keep current Education Commissioner Tony Wood as a deputy commissioner through June. He cited as pressing issues the State Board of Education’s takeover of the Little Rock School District, the creation of the Jacksonville School District, and the Hughes School District, which faces consolidation because it has fallen below 350 students.
"What has been going on in the department, I don’t want to change anything," he said. He'll be meeting with those working with the Little Rock School District, Key said, "to get up to speed on where they are in their processes."
"What’s important in Little Rock is important to the state, so obviously we’re going to focus a lot of attention there," Key said.
State Board member Jay Barth said Wednesday, "I think we all greatly enjoyed the opportunity to visit with Commissioner Key about the various challenges – but the even greater number of opportunities – facing Arkansas in the realm of education."
Legislators changed state law this session to allow Key to serve in the position. Under the previous law, the education commissioner was required to have a master’s degree and 10 years of experience in teaching, five of which must have been in an administrative or supervisory position. The position now requires a bachelor’s degree and indirect education experience as a policymaker.