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Arkansas education secretary discusses plans as governor pushes school reform

We spoke to Jacob Oliva, Arkansas's education secretary, about what he hopes to accomplish for people in the Natural State.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Jacob Oliva was appointed by the state board as commissioner of the Division of Elementary & Secondary Education on Thursday— and now, Arkansas's new Secretary of Education has the same powers as his predecessor.

The unanimous decision meant that Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders' choice to execute her five-point plan to reform Arkansas schools now has the same tools as former Secretary, Johnny Key.

It has been a busy time for Oliva, a native of Florida who most recently served as chancellor under Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. 

Since beginning his new position, Oliva has been working out of a hotel room while he searches for a place to rent in the Little Rock area.

On her first full day in office, Governor Sanders signed an executive order designed to serve as a blueprint for her far-reaching education plans.

"We have 140,000 students in the state that go to a D or an F school," Oliva said.

"To say we're not going to hit the ground running and act with urgency is going to put these students and failing schools further behind," he added.

Wednesday's executive order as well as an order signed on Tuesday to root out Critical Race Theory and "indoctrination" in schools have sent Oliva in a clear direction as he begins to get to know the people of Arkansas.

"I firmly believe that school districts and teachers are going to teach the standards they're going to use curriculum that's aligned with the standards, and they're going to leave personal beliefs and biases at the door," he explained. "We should be teaching students how to think, not what to think."

Fights over curricula and courses of study have flared up across the country, including Florida, but Oliva said he isn't expecting something similar to happen in Arkansas.

Though he does agree teachers in the natural state need a pay raise.

"Anytime we have an opportunity to talk about investing in teacher salaries, it's something that it actually gets me excited about because that really goes into recruiting, retaining, and recognizing the single most important factor that's going to improve learning," he said.

Gov. Sanders said on Wednesday that she wants lawmakers to pile her entire education blueprint into one big bill, including teacher salaries.

Meanwhile, Democratic leaders would prefer pay packages to get decided separately.

Another key component of Oliva's work will be implementing programs that expand school choice in the state. The idea of public funds following students into private or charter schools is a concept gaining momentum in Republican-led states.

"First and foremost, we want to invest in our public schools to make sure that they're some of the best options. But if you are a parent, and your local school isn't going to meet the needs of your child, then there should be other opportunities," he described.

When asked if that included establishing so-called education savings accounts, Oliva deferred to lawmakers and his boss.

"I think those are opportunities. There are other states that are implementing best practices, and I think Arkansas is in a position where we can get a snapshot of what's happening in other states," he said.

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