Multiple sources indicated to me over the weekend that Tony Wood would be departing as state Education Department director sometime this week. He’d earlier announced his plans to leave no later than about June.

I keep hearing the schedule has been moved up. I also continue to hear that former Sen. Johnny Key, who left the Senate for a lobbying job for the University of Arkansas System, would succeed Wood.


Under current law, Key isn’t qualified to hold the job. It requires a master’s degree and 10 years experience, direct or indirect, as a teacher. Legislation has been pending to change that to allow naming of a director with a bachelor’s degree and “direct or indirect experience in the field of education, including without limitation as a teacher, administrator, or policy maker.”

Key has been a policy maker. He was also owner of a state-funded pre-school cited for leading pre-schoolers in prayer. He was also the legislator who blew the roof off enrollment in the Virtual Academy charter school — from 500 to 3,000 — with a bit of special language trickery not presented to the entire legislature. He’s viewed as a supporter of the Walton-financed vision of school reform — charters and more charters and other forms of “choice.” If he is chosen, one of the first places to watch will be state operation of the Little Rock School District. Key would become the effective “school board” for the district, now in state receivership because six of its 48 schools were in academic distress.


In theory, the state Board of Education chooses the commissioner. The governor may fire the commissioner. None of the current members of the state Board of Education were appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, but …. 

I tried to reach Wood. He was in a meeting with department leadership. Key in the past has dodged questions about his interest in the position.


Key presumably couldn’t take the job — which should provide him a substantial pay raise, a lifelong benefit given state retirement’s peg to highest salary — until the law gets changed. It’s currently sitting in a Senate committee.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has scheduled a news conference on education at 1 p.m. today, presumably to announce the change.

UPDATE FROM BENJI: As expected, former state senator Johnny Key will be Hutchinson’s choice to run ADE. However, Tony Wood won’t be leaving immediately. Hutchinson said “he’s assured me he’ll stay where he is, because the legislature has to take action” before Key can be appointed.

As Max mentioned above, that’s because Key lacks the qualifications to serve as Commissioner under current law. A Senate bill that aims to change those qualifications will have to pass before Key can step up to the job. He’ll also have to be approved by the State Board of Education, which ultimately is the body responsible for hiring the Education Commissioner. Presumably, the governor feels assured the legislature will easily pass the bill.


I asked the governor afterward if he’d talked to the State Board about his choice; he said he’d only notified them this morning that he intended to submit Key’s name for commissioner.

Hutchinson said today that he’d previously asked Key to take the job, but the former senator turned him down the first time around. “This only came to fruition over these past four or five days,” Hutchinson said. Somewhat implausibly, he also said that the bill in the legislature that would change the Ed Commissioner’s qualifications was not connected to his choice of Key.

When asked by a reporter about the wisdom of changing the law to suit the person chosen, Hutchinson was unapologetic: “I think my policy has always been ‘we want the best man for the job.’ ” But he also acknowledged that “this appointment will require the legislature to take action, as well as the State Board of Education.”

Key said he was glad Hutchinson had persisted in getting him to take the job. He said the post atop ADE would be “the greatest challenge of my professional career … I take it willingly, and I take it with excitement.”

Other than that, Key would say little about his plans. When asked about priorities for the Little Rock School District and about the bill to allow waivers from school consolidation thresholds, Key said only that it was too premature to talk about specifics. 

I asked Key what he’d do to address the concern among many in Little Rock that the state plans to implement radical change in the district, including privatization of the schools. He again said that he couldn’t give details, but said community engagement was one of his main concerns in the LRSD.

“We have to reestablish trust where trust has been broken. And I’m not saying that’s from any one action  … it’s the culmination of mistrust that’s happened over the years. … One thing I’ve found in the General Assembly is … we have trusted each other, even in times of disagreement, to accomplish things. I could point to school choice … there were a number of folks who didn’t really trust the way we were going. I worked very hard with [Democratic] Senator [Joyce] Elliott and others, with folks from a wide spectrum, and once we determined that we could trust each other, what we came up with proved that it’s doable.”

UPDATE II: Legislation was introduced today by Sen. Alan Clark that would retain the master’s degree and teaching experience for the commissioner “Unless a deputy commissioner meets the requirements of
28 this subdivision (c)(1)(B)” — the masters’ and teaching requirement.

Here’s the full press release:

LITTLE ROCK – Governor Asa Hutchinson has submitted the name of Johnny Key to the State Board of Education to act as the new Commissioner of Education and to serve as the administrative head of the Arkansas Department of Education.

Governor Hutchinson issued the following statement on Johnny Key:

“I am extremely pleased to submit Johnny Key to act as the next Commissioner of the state Department of Education. Johnny has always exhibited a passion for improving education, from his work as a legislator who focused on educational issues to his current position as associate vice president for the University of Arkansas system.

“In the General Assembly, where he served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Johnny was noted for his leadership, consensus-building and bipartisan approach. We are lucky to have someone with his skill set as the next Education Commissioner, especially someone whose reputation is as impressive as his résumé.

“I also want to thank outgoing Commissioner Tony Wood for staying on during this transition and working hard for the people of Arkansas. His leadership has been invaluable.

“There may be no more important confirmation I make as governor than Education Commissioner, and I am fortunate that Johnny Key is willing and eager to take on the challenge of improving education for all Arkansans. I know he will do an outstanding job.”

Johnny Key issued the following statement:

“I am grateful to Governor Hutchinson for asking me to serve his administration and the people of Arkansas in this capacity, and I look forward to working with him, the General Assembly, and the State Board of Education to lead Arkansas toward educational excellence.

“I am confident that the 475,000 students of Arkansas can lead the nation in educational growth and achievement if all stakeholders – parents, teachers, administrators, communities, businesses, and state officials – hold high expectations and work in a cooperative and collaborative manner to meet those expectations. I am excited to have the opportunity to promote that spirit of cooperation and collaboration.”

Johnny Key began his service in the General Assembly in 2003. He was a member of the Senate Education Committee from 2009 to 2014, including a term as chairman. He led the effort in 2013 to update the Arkansas public school choice law after it was ruled unconstitutional by a Federal judge. Originally from Gurdon, Key is a 1991 graduate of the University of Arkansas with a degree in chemical engineering. He is currently the Associate Vice President for University Relations at the University of Arkansas System.