The State Board of Education unanimously voted on Wednesday to approve former Republican state senator Johnny Key as the new head of the Arkansas Department of Education. The state board went into private executive session to speak with Key, then emerged to make the vote to hire him.

Key replaces Tony Wood, who had served as Education Commissioner since last summer (and was never expected to stay in the position for long). Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced at the beginning of March that Key was his pick to head ADE, despite lacking some of the qualifications required by statute.


The legislature duly passed a bill to change those qualifications, thus paving the way for Key’s hiring today. 

Some are bound to see the state board’s unanimous vote of confidence in Key as the latest step in the plan to privatize the Little Rock School District and undermine public education generally. I think the situation is more complex than that.


Recall that four members of the nine-person state board also voted against the takeover of the LRSD in January. Those members — Jay Barth, Mireya Reith, Joe Black and Alice Mahoney — didn’t fight Key’s nomination today, at least not in public. That is, in their eyes at least, it’s possible to oppose the wholesale takeover of the LRSD while also finding Key an acceptable pick to head ADE.

Key is socially conservative, certainly, and he’s sympathetic to market-based education reforms such as charters. Everyone invested in public education should keep a close eye on his decisions as Education Commissioner. But he’s also been involved with the inner workings of state education funding and statute for over a decade. I’ve heard him patiently explain and defend the foundation funding formula in committee to his more fiscally conservative colleagues, for example, the mechanism by which the state partially levels school spending between rich and poor districts in Arkansas. I think it’s fair to say that he and Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who was vice-chair of Senate Education while Key chaired the committee in 2013 and 2014, agreed as much as they disagreed. Key has worked in good faith with other legislators to develop fixes — if flawed and temporary ones — on issues like the school choice law or the teacher insurance system.


None of that is reason to give him a pass; in the context of HB 1733, progressives are right to be wary of Johnny Key. But writing him off entirely would be a mistake.