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Ark. Governor Wants New K-12 Boss, But State Must First Change Rules

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican elected last year, has selected his choice for a new education commissioner, former GOP state senator Johnny Key. But before Key can take office, state lawmakers have to alter the Natural State's requirements for that position. 

In order to serve as head of the state education department, the Arkansas K-12 chief must have a master's degree and have 10 years experience with teaching, although those years of "teaching" must include at least five years in a supervisory or administrative position in schools. Key, who served in the state legislature from 2003 through 2013, at one time led the Arkansas Senate education committee, but he doesn't meet the teaching prerequisite for prospective state chiefs.

One other (at least theoretical) hang-up for Key: In Arkansas, the state board of education has the final say over who gets to be the education commissioner. According to the Arkansas Times, Hutchinson said he intends to "submit Key's name" for commissioner to the state board. However, the state board has typically approved governors' recommendations for state chief. The current commissioner, Tony Wood, said he plans to leave the department by June at the latest. 

Arkansas Senate Bill 176 would also allow those who have worked in education as a policymaker to serve as state education commissioner. That's the kind of legislation Arkansas lawmakers would need to approve before Key can be legally considered by the state board. However, the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators doesn't like the bill. 

There's recent Arkansas precedent for changing the prerequisites for a state education job. In 2013, lawmakers approved changes to the required qualifications for a state higher education director, allowing Shane Broadway (backed by former governor Mike Beebe) to assume the post.

Whoever the new commissioner is, he or she would be stepping into at least one very tricky situation. In January, the state board voted to take over Little Rock schools, the state's largest district, and to disband its seven-member local school board. Former Little Rock board members are suing to stop the takoever. 

The issue of a state chief's qualifications also cropped up for several years in New Mexico, where state Secretary Hanna Skandera's appointment was held up because some opponents said she did not meet the state's requirement that the secretary be a "qualified experienced educator." Skandera did not have prior experience as a K-12 classroom teacher or administrator—she has previously served in numerous K-12 administrative positions, including deputy commissioner of the Florida educatino department, and had also taught at Pepperdine University in California.

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