• In 2021 AR Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva was part of an investigation into a Florida education bid-rigging scandal.
  • Oliva is named in a June subpoena from a federal grand jury requesting correspondence between himself and staff.
  • At best, Oliva let some shady dealings slide while in power in Florida; at worst, he knowingly stood to benefit from the attempted bid rigging.
  • This is a bad look for the leader of our evolving education system as he brings with him his previous connection to government corruption and as the legislative process for LEARNS comes under fire.

Oliva’s scandal that won’t go away

Corruption in the Arkansas Department of Education is far more likely with Secretary Jacob Oliva at the helm. Oliva is caught up in a bid-rigging scandal from Florida that won’t leave him alone. Now a grand jury is naming him in a subpoena.

According to a local where Oliva was superintendent, he was once known as a kind, progressive administrator and educator. Then he became a reactionary shill for Ron DeSantis. Governor Sarah Sanders saw past the scandal (or tapped him because of it?) and announced his appointment even before her inauguration.

What happened in Florida?

The bid-rigging scandal in which Oliva is named involves two other Florida people: former Vice Chancellor for Strategic Development Melissa Ramsey and former Board of Education member Andy Tuck.

The state put out a call for quotes from vendors to take over operations in a school district it determined was struggling. Ramsey submitted a proposal to the state for the job to be granted to her LLC, which she co-owned with Tuck. Jacob Oliva was named in the proposal, and his name was submitted on the original paperwork of the LLC. He claimed he never consented to being an official part of the LLC, but the investigation showed he had discussed the possibility of going into business with the other two. Oliva said they talked about starting a “turnaround” company that would fix struggling school districts in other states, but he never agreed to his name being on anything. At this time, we don’t know if he intended to co-own the business with Ramsey and Tuck, but there’s definitely some smoke here.

What this means

A few things might be true in this case.

Given the current facts, Jacob Oliva might have colluded with his colleagues to start a business that would bid for a job from his own Department of Education and funnel tax dollars into his own pockets.

Another possibility is that Jacob Oliva knew his colleagues were rigging a bid in their favor, didn’t stop it, and tried to keep his nose clean by removing his involvement.

At best, Jacob Oliva was unaware of his own name being associated with a company bidding for a large contract with the Department of Education where he was a senior official. In this case, he either allowed or was unaware of the bid-rigging activities happening under his nose.

One thing is for certain: Jacob Oliva does not run a tight ship.

You add this story to the reports of his ideological behavior changing under the DeSantis administration, and it’s hard to imagine Oliva knew nothing. Even if he advised his colleagues not to move forward due to bad optics, the bid was submitted with his name on the proposal. It’s hard to believe his business partners would add his name to an LLC without his go-ahead, but that’s the story he’s going with.

Oliva’s Arkansas Department of Education

Sarah Sanders surrounds herself with yes men. She bought a legislature that will rubber stamp her will. Her administration must be even more willing to do her bidding (no pun intended).

Jacob Oliva has proven himself a loyal appointee. His Education Department grows increasingly political with each week. In June, Oliva even snapped at a public education advocate for requesting a town hall via email.  

Jacob Oliva’s track record as a likely accomplice to Florida corruption made him the most desirable leader for Sanders’ Department of Education. Sanders didn’t want an innovator in education. She wanted a willing mouthpiece with a track record of doing as he’s told and burying or ignoring unsavory stories— and that’s what she got.

The future of Arkansas education

The ballot referendum effort to put LEARNS to a vote by the people fell short of the required votes. Year one of the Sanders LEARNS Act is imminent. We know that the voucher system at the core of the LEARNS Act is bad for Arkansas students, families, and communities. This is especially true for rural folks and families of children with disabilities, but instead of trying to help these struggling folks, our Department of Education appears to be doing political spin-work for the Governor.

The best thing you can do to push back against corruption like this is talk to your family, friends, and loved ones about what you are learning. Our constitution gives power to the people, not the select few who run our government. They work for us, and we are here to remind you of that. Spread the word that we won’t stand for corruption like this— not now, not ever.