As Arkansas’ first secretary of education, Johnny Key will implement Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s government transformation efforts for students in pre-kindergarten through graduate school. Hutchinson announced Key, the current education commissioner, as one of 15 cabinet secretaries Wednesday (May 22).
The act, which takes effect July 1, combines the Department of Education, led by Key; Department of Higher Education, led by Dr. Maria Markham; and Department of Career Education, previously led by Dr. Charisse Childers. Also part of the new department will be the School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, the School for the Deaf, the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and the Arkansas State Library.
Key will lead both the department and its new Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is today’s Department of Education. He has served in his current post since March 25, 2015. He will be the second-highest paid cabinet secretary at $239,540, which will be a raise from the $236,000 he is making as education commissioner.
As Division of Elementary and Secondary Education director, he’ll continue implementing programs like R.I.S.E., a statewide reading program. Recent state education successes have included an increase in high school graduation rates for the third straight year to 89.2% in 2018. The department has implemented Hutchinson’s Computer Science Initiative, which has increased the number of high school students taking a computer science course from less than 1,000 to more than 8,000. Meanwhile, Key has continued to be a lightning rod for criticism from some activists because of the state’s takeover of the Little Rock School District. That takeover occurred two months before Key became commissioner.
Hutchinson announced his new cabinet secretaries May 22 after informing Key of his selection the day before. He told reporters he picked Key because of his accomplishments in the largest education-related department and because he understands what Hutchinson is trying to accomplish with the initiative.
“In the interview process, he understood transformation. … But in education, you’re looking at efficiencies, but you’re really also looking at better delivery of services,” Hutchinson said. “And bringing over career education is a good example of that, where you can have one department now issue an approval for new career tech courses versus two different departments. He has that vision. I think it’s a critical part of that mission.”
Key said in an interview after the announcement that the future department’s elements now separately have human resources and finance functions, and some have a legal function. Those efforts can be streamlined, as can the elements’ information technology functions.
Combining the agencies will better align their missions. He compared the “P-20” (pre-K through advanced degrees) system to a highway where students can traverse multiple on-ramps and off-ramps. He wants the schools for the deaf and blind to get the attention they need. The alignment will allow the Martin Luther King Commission and the State Library to become department resources.
“Our vision at the department is transforming Arkansas to lead the nation in student-focused education,” he said. “That applies whether we’re talking about K-12 or whether we’re talking about K through career.”
He said the state’s education-related departments have worked well together over the last several years. As an example, he cited the alignment of the Departments of Education and Career Education’s courses and course numbers. Previously, a high school student taking a career education course – say, anatomy and physiology as part of a medical track to become a certified nursing assistant – didn’t get credit through the Department of Education. The most challenging part of the alignment was licensing educators.
Key previously served in the Arkansas Senate from 2009 until 2014 and was Senate Education Committee chairman. He also served three two-year terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives. From August 2014 until being named education commissioner, he was the University of Arkansas System’s associate vice president for university relations.
Key’s appointment puts him in charge of the new Division of Higher Education, which will coordinate the efforts of the state’s public colleges and universities. Among his goals are improving college enrollment and retention rates. He believes the state’s new performance-based funding formula for higher education will help achieve that goal.
“Roughly our numbers are 50% of our college kids who are high school graduates go to college, and then somewhere around 50% that start, finish,” he said. “We need to move those numbers.”
Key said he has not had formal meetings with current agency directors regarding their future roles, but he will take direction from the governor’s office.
“I’ll go back to what [Hutchinson] said: No one is going to lose their job due to transformation,” he said. “I take that to mean he is very comfortable with the folks that he [has in place] because they are his choices that have been made, and I don’t anticipate major shifts at that upper level of management.”
He pointed out that he worked with Markham when he was employed by the University of Arkansas System and she was vice chancellor at UA Cossatot in De Queen.
“I get along with all of them, and I look forward to getting to know them better and working closely,” he said.
Markham said in a text message that she intends to continue to lead the new Division of Higher Education.
“Governor Hutchinson had several conversations with us [his directors] to discuss transformation and how we were all to contribute to his vision,” she wrote. “I am excited to continue in my role as the Director of Higher Education. I have a great relationship with Commissioner Key and am eager to better align our efforts. I have always viewed K-12 and Higher Education as members of the same team to move Arkansas forward.”
Childers was announced Thursday as director of the Division of Workforce Services, which will be part of the Department of Commerce.