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Arkansas Governor-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders appoints Florida education official to 'transform' schools

By Sarah May on
 December 30, 2022

As she prepares to be sworn into office on Jan. 10, Republican Arkansas Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders has announced her choice of top Florida education official Jacob Oliva to become secretary of the state's Department of Education, as Politico reports.

Sanders also indicated Thursday that she hopes to work together with the state Board of Education to facilitate her wish for Oliva to function in a dual role as elementary and secondary education commissioner as well, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Sanders taps Oliva

In selecting Oliva for the role, Sanders highlighted the successes he helped engender in Florida's educational system over the past several years under the leadership of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, having served as senior chancellor of Florida's Department of Education since 2017.

During a Thursday press conference, Sanders outlined her rationale for choosing Oliva and expressed her enthusiasm for the approach to educational reform she believes he will bring to the table.

“Education is the foundation for success, and with my nominee for Secretary of Education and Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jacob Oliva, we are ready to transform Arkansas education with bold reforms that will empower every kid to succeed.”

“Jacob's proven success increasing student achievement and his experience serving in many educational roles will make him an asset to my administration,” Sanders continued.

Referencing Oliva's notable experience in the Sunshine State, Sanders added, “We are so proud of the work he has been able to accomplish under the direction and partnership of [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis in the state of Florida, and we know he will be able to bring that same energy and enthusiasm and success here in the state of Arkansas.”

Seasoned educator, administrator

As Politico noted, Oliva has held a broad array of roles in education over the course of his career, and in his most recent position as senior chancellor in Florida, oversaw public schools, early learning, school choice, and school safety initiatives and played a role in advocating for the Parental Rights in Education Act signed into law earlier this year, which prohibited instruction on matters of gender identity and sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms.

Prior to his state-level work in Florida, Oliva, 48, served as a special education elementary school teacher and as principal of two Flagler County schools, later rising to become superintendent of that district.

In a news release discussing his appointment, Oliva declared, “Education is the key to the future, creating opportunity 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 Governor-elect Sanders to build a bright future for our students,” Oliva added.

Floridians react to departure

In the wake of Sanders' announcement, Oliva's colleagues in Florida lauded the choice and wished him well in the new role.

“For the last five years, Senior Chancellor Oliva has been a dedicated member of the Florida Department of Education's leadership team, including serving as interim education commissioner, and his work has helped launch Florida as the Education State,” the agency said in a public statement, according to Politico.

Former Florida Republican Gov. Jeb Bush also reacted to Oliva's new opportunity, writing on Twitter, as the Democrat Gazette noted, “Congratulations to Florida's own Jacob Oliva. Arkansas students, families, and educators will benefit from your experience and leadership. Terrific choice, Gov-elect Sarah Huckabee!”

Arkansans weigh in

Following the news of Oliva's appointment, reactions from prominent residents of his new home state began to pour in as well.

Republican state Rep. Bruce Cozart, chair of the House Education Committee, expressed his belief that Oliva is a “good choice” and indicated he is hopeful that he will establish fruitful avenues of communication with those in the legislature.

State Sen. Jane English, a Republican from North Little Rock, opined, “I think [Oliva] has probably got some good ideas to go along with Gov.-elect Sanders on education reform,” as the Democrat Gazette further noted.

Expressing a contrary point of view, however, was Tippi McCullough (D-Little Rock), who expressed concerns over Oliva's prior involvement with Florida's Parental Rights in Education Act, saying, “I certainly don't want somebody coming into Arkansas and trying to solve problems that don't exist.”