Hutchinson: Ex-senator to head Arkansas Education Department; after new standard adopted

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday he wants a former state senator to head the Arkansas Education Department, but his selection will be able to take the job only if legislators change the qualifications for the post.

Johnny Key, a former Republican lawmaker from Mountain Home, is a former chairman of the Senate Education Committee. While he has been involved in a number of high-profile school issues over the past decade, he doesn't meet current standards because he hasn't been a teacher or a superintendent.

"With his view of education, with his background of education, he's the best person for the job," Hutchinson said at a news conference in his state Capitol conference room.

The state Board of Education must concur.

Key was in the Legislature when Arkansas changed its school funding plan in response to a state Supreme Court finding that it wasn't funding the K-12 public education system adequately and wasn't spreading the money fairly.

In recent years, he backed letting pupils transfer among districts as long as the move didn't violate desegregation orders and he supported a stair-step method of awarding scholarships from the state lottery — students receive more money the longer they work toward a degree.

"Our state has invested too much over its history in education for us not to keep moving forward, to set a high bar of expectation," Key said. "We are moving now from what we've been talking the last decade about, adequacy. We're going to start moving toward talking about excellence."

The now-defunct Lake View School District sued the state in the early 1990s, arguing that the state wasn't spending enough money on education and distributed money unfairly. Justices agreed and legislators spent most of the 2000s restructuring the 475,000-student public education system.

"We're now working with the third governor since the Lake View decision," Key said. "In the broader context, our achievements since Lake View, they're not where we want to be, but we have made remarkable strides."

He said a priority for early in his tenure would be returning the Little Rock School District to local control. The state Board of Education took over the 25,000-student district in January after six of its 48 schools had fallen into academic distress.

"The biggest public issue right now is the Little Rock School District," Key said. "Our capitol city has to have good schools. We're going to make that happen," he said.

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