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Arkansas Board of Education OKs Jacob Oliva as state education commissioner

by Cynthia Howell | January 12, 2023 at 4:10 p.m.
Secretary of the Department of Education Jacob Oliva (right) speaks after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a new executive order Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023 at the state Capitol. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

The Arkansas Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to make Florida educator Jacob Oliva this state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, positioning him in the dual role of commissioner as well as state secretary of education.

The Education Board approved the hire in public after meeting for about two hours in a private session with Oliva.

“I look forward to supporting the schools,” Oliva told the board members in expressing his appreciation for their vote and for the welcome he has already received from Division of Elementary and Secondary Education’s “talented staff” as well as from parents and teachers he has already met.

“There are also opportunities for improvement,” he said, noting that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ recent executive orders on education “task our agency … with rolling up our sleeves.”

He called the elements of the executive orders — which deal with early childhood education, literacy, teacher retention and recruitment, school accountability measures, school safety, and parent access to curriculum and best schools for their children — the “right work” and “spot on.”

Sanders, who was sworn into her office Tuesday, nominated Oliva, 48, late last month to be education secretary in the cabinet of her new administration. She said at the time that she would work with the state Education Board to have Oliva also become the commissioner of the elementary and secondary education.

The Arkansas Senate confirmed Oliva as education secretary on Wednesday.

As secretary and commissioner, Oliva will not only oversee more than 476,000 public school students in 1,056 schools, but also higher education, career and technical education, and the Dr. Martin Luther King Commission and Board.

Ouida Newton of Leola, chairman of the Education Board, called Oliva’s experiences as an educator impressive.

“His dedication to student learning is evident in his leadership and efforts to implement successful programs and initiatives that support learning,” Newton said. “I am confident that the students and educators of Arkansas will benefit from his expertise, and we look forward to working with him.”

Johnny Key, whom Oliva is replacing as the state’s education chief, had similarly served in the dual role during Gov. Asa Hutchinson ‘s two terms. Key’s annual salary was $239,361.20.

Education Board member Jeff Wood of Little Rock made the motion to employ Oliva, who attended Thursday’s meeting with his wife Rebecca. The couple have two children, a college freshman and an eighth grader who will be attending an Arkansas school, Oliva said.

Wood earlier in the meeting praised Key for his eight years of work in the job, citing in particular the efforts to transform the teaching of reading so that it is based on the science of how students learn to read.

Oliva graduated from public high school in Miami-Dade County and Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., before becoming a special education teacher in elementary school in Flagler County. He is a former elementary and high school principal and superintendent of Flagler County schools. Flagler County is north of Daytona, Fla. 

He has a master's degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida and is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Florida.

Oliva joined the Florida Department of Education as executive vice chancellor of public schools in 2017. He became chancellor in 2019, where he supported the teaching and learning of Florida’s more than 2.8 million students in approximately 3,600 public schools.

In 2021, he was elevated to the role of senior chancellor, and his responsibilities expanded to include early learning, choice programs, school safety, and school accountability. He was appointed Interim Commissioner in 2022.

Arkansas Code Annotated 6-11-102 establishes the qualifications and duties of the commissioner of elementary and secondary education who is hired by the state Board of Education— subject to confirmation by the governor.

The commissioner is the employee of the state Education Board but serves at the pleasure of the governor and reports to the secretary of the Department of Education.

The commissioner shall devote all of his or her time to the duties of his or her office; act as an agent of the state board; and perform other duties as are designated by the state board and by statute, according to the law.

The person selected as commissioner shall hold a master’s degree from an accredited institution; have at least 10 years’ experience as a teacher, five of which must be of an administrative or supervisory nature; and hold a valid state teacher’s license. If the designee doesn’t meet those requirements, the deputy commissioner must meet them.


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