Arkansas Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders will nominate Education Senior Chancellor Jacob Oliva from Florida as the new head of the Arkansas Department of Education. He will also serve as the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. Sanders made the announcement during a news conference on Thursday.

“Education is the foundation for success, and with … Jacob Oliva, we are ready to transform Arkansas education with bold reforms that will empower every kid to succeed,” Sanders said.

She added, “We are going to work in partnership with (our lawmakers) to frankly deliver what Arkansas needs and what Arkansas students deserve.”

Good for her. Clearly, she’s looking for the best to lead the way in Arkansas and her choice from Florida acknowledges the success that Governor DeSantis and his administration are having in that state. Arkansas parents won’t have to worry about CRT being pushed on their children in classrooms. Oliva has a history of success with increasing student achievement and empowering parents, not bureaucrats.

Oliva began his career as a special education teacher. He joined the Florida Department of Education in 2017 having served as Superintendent for Flagler County Schools. His current position is overseeing the Division of Public Schools, Office of Safe Schools, Division of Early Learning, Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, and Office of Assessment and Accountability. It must be hard to fit all that on a business card. He appears to be experienced in big jobs, though. He said he’s excited for his new job.

“And I’m excited to get to work on Day 1 to enact it,” he said. “Education is the key to the future, creating opportunities for all, which is why I’ve spent my career implementing successful early learning programs, empowering parents with choices and investing in career readiness.

“I am ready to continue that work here in Arkansas and look forward to working with Gov.-elect Sanders to build a bright future for our students.”

Oliva credits Sanders with having “the right vision to unleash Arkansas education.” It will be quite a change for him. Florida has the third-largest public school system in the country. It has about 4,000 schools and more than 160,000 teachers. There are 2.9 million students. For comparison purposes, “in 2022, Arkansas had 474,826 students enrolled in a total of 989 schools in 233 school districts. There were 36,900 teachers in the public schools.” That comes from an entry at Ballotpedia.

Sanders is looking to Oliva to replicate his success in Florida as he comes to Arkansas. He implemented executive orders by DeSantis preempting local school districts on COVID-19 mandates and new laws restricting classroom instruction on CRT and on sexual preferences.

Sanders hailed Oliva’s “proven success increasing student achievement.” In a statement, she said he will expand access to education and “empower parents, not government bureaucrats, and prepare students for the workforce, not government dependency.”

She also cited his work on “parental rights policies and bold education reforms.”

Sanders is making good on a campaign promise to make education a priority. In September on the campaign trail, she spoke about reforms that can be made, like using reading coaches and providing teachers with resources and training to teach the science of reading. And she wants to expand access to pre-K. I hope she and Oliva encourage the use of phonics in teaching kids how to read. It’s a proven path to success. It’s seen as old-school but it works and it helps develop spelling skills.

“I think [education is] the single best place that we can impact and change Arkansas for the better,” Sanders told news media. “One of the reasons I’m running is because I think education in Arkansas hasn’t been made a top priority in the way it needs to be.”

Only about 31% of the state’s third graders are reading at or above their grade level, she said.

“We know that if a kid’s not reading by the time they’re in third grade, there’s a 70% chance that they’re going to have a lifetime in poverty,” she said.

Arkansas is below the national average in childhood literacy, she noted.

It looks like a smart choice. Sarah’s off to a good start.

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