Still ripe for reform in Arkansas? 

Last February, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation released a report I authored titled "Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change." It highlighted the state's recent progressive patterns on a variety of public policy matters ranging from pre-K-12 education, children's health access, and tax and budget decisions that maintained key state services even through two recessions. Under both parties' leadership, Arkansas had been an example of pragmatic progressivism that contrasted it with the states around it. Just as important as what the state accomplished, it was noteworthy that Arkansas generally avoided divisive social legislation.

In explaining the patterns, the report pointed to Arkansas's small size that allows grassroots politics to have an impact on policy, the fact that advocacy groups work remarkably well together in coalitions, and a distinctly depoliticized state judiciary that allowed state courts the independence to make tough decisions, in addition to the state's populist political culture. However, the report concluded with a warning about the heightened polarization being expressed in the political rhetoric in the state.

Last week, I was asked to reflect upon the recently concluded session of the legislature for the future of progressivism in Arkansas at the regular post-legislative session sponsored by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. There, I grappled with whether "Ripe for Reform" is now simply a historical document or whether it remains a viable model for political change in an emphatically two-party (and GOP-trending) Arkansas.

Despite the sharpened polarization of issues such as abortion, guns, and charter education during the session, the passage of the "private option" suggests that pragmatic progressivism hasn't entirely departed with the shift in legislative power at the Capitol. Like past key reforms on education and children's health, it is an imperfect, but clear step forward for the state. The question: Does that major legislation mark the last gasp of the tradition or does it show the durability of Arkansas's pragmatic progressivism?

Progressive victories will be less consistent than in the past — especially in areas like tax policy — but they unquestionably remain possible. First, there are lessons to be learned from the health care expansion episode on future public policy debates. As in that case, policies that are framed in terms of their economic benefit to the state will be advantaged. Fortunately, many of the key priorities of progressive groups are easy to frame as economic positives for the state. Further expansion of early childhood education, advancement of afterschool programs, movement away from juvenile incarceration to community-based treatment, and the DREAM Act all represent investments with exceptional returns for the state.

But, framing alone will not create the change that progressives envision for the state's future. Groups engaged in progressive work on the state have to go beyond legislative lobbying to hone a variety of tools for social change. Lobbying state agencies on rules and regulations, using direct democracy, building real grassroots organizations throughout the state, and litigating when necessary (remember it was the Lake View cases that drove education reform in the state) all have to be part of the progressive movement's tool chest. To thrive, Arkansas's progressives will have to show new agility and ambidextrousness in the policy-making arena.

The coalitional work that has been a hallmark of social change efforts in Arkansas becomes paramount. Indeed, the victories for progressives during the session aside from the "private option"— positive energy and early childhood reforms, stymying extreme school choice efforts, and stopping the so-called "highway robbery" budget legislation — all reflected bipartisan approaches, engaged active constituency groups, and were coalitional in nature. Most key progressive failures of the session were absent those elements.

Next, progressives cannot wait until final debates on the policies that they care most about to engage in the policymaking process. Most important, they have to fight efforts to alter the rules of the game by limiting access to the petition process and the ballot box and by attacking the tradition of separation of powers and the independence of the Arkansas judiciary. These proposals all center on taking away tools of political change and reducing grassroots power.

All this said, vital is whether pragmatists win the governorship and the Speaker's race in the House (no matter which party controls that chamber) in the next two years. That is the most important variable determining just how ripe for reform Arkansas remains.


From the ArkTimes store

Speaking of Ripe For Reform: Arkansas As A Model For Social Change

  • Is Arkansas really primed for reform?

    February 16, 2012
    Commissioned by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, "Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change" argues that, despite creeping hyper-partisanship, Arkansas's modern history is filled with more progressive achievement than its Southern neighbors. And that it's progress that can be built upon /more/
  • More »


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Jay Barth

  • GOP health care

    There is this little thing called the Affordable Care Act that screams "danger ahead" for Republicans in Arkansas.
    • Mar 9, 2017
  • Arkansas voters know what they want

    With a surprisingly strong vote, 53 percent of Arkansas's voters said last Nov. 8 that they wanted to bring medical marijuana to the state.
    • Feb 23, 2017
  • Resist Gorsuch

    Barring the bizarre, Judge Neil Gorsuch will become one of the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court by the time the court reconvenes for its new term in October.
    • Feb 9, 2017
  • More »

People who saved…

Readers also liked…

  • Ban the box in Little Rock

    In the latest evidence of the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in shaping the American policy agenda, this past week has become "ban the box" week.
    • Nov 4, 2015

Most Shared

  • Judge Griffen dismisses execution challenge; says hands tied by 'shameful' Ark. Supreme Court ruling

    Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen ruled today that he had no choice based on  a past Arkansas Supreme Court decision  but to dismiss a lawsuit by Death Row inmates seeking to challenge the constitutionality of the state's lethal injection process.But the judge did so unhappily with sharp criticism of the Arkansas Supreme Court for failing to address critical points raised in the lawsuit.
  • Metroplan sets public hearing on 30 Crossing

    The controversial 30 Crossing project to fatten up seven miles of Interstate 30 from U.S. Highway 67 in North Little Rock to Interstate 530 in Little Rock will once again get a public hearing, thanks to a vote of the Metroplan board Wednesday.
  • New suit argues Bruce Ward mentally unfit for execution

    A new lawsuit argues that Bruce Ward, scheduled to die by lethal injection next month, is not mentally competent to be executed. It says his condition has been worsened by decades of solitary confinement.

Latest in Jay Barth

  • Worse than N.C.'s bathroom bill

    SB 774 extends birth certificate requirement to bathrooms in all public facilities, and that's an original birth certificate, too.
    • Mar 23, 2017
  • GOP health care

    There is this little thing called the Affordable Care Act that screams "danger ahead" for Republicans in Arkansas.
    • Mar 9, 2017
  • Arkansas voters know what they want

    With a surprisingly strong vote, 53 percent of Arkansas's voters said last Nov. 8 that they wanted to bring medical marijuana to the state.
    • Feb 23, 2017
  • More »

Visit Arkansas

Brant Collins named Group Travel Manager for Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Brant Collins named Group Travel Manager for Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

Collins to work toward increasing visitation to Arkansas by groups and promoting the state's appeal

Event Calendar

« »


  1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  

Most Viewed

  • Never his fault

    Unlike his personal hero Vladimir Putin, President Trump can't have his political opponents thrown into prison, shot dead in the street or flung off fourth-floor balconies.
  • Hope for Gray

    The Arkansas Democratic Party recently elected House Minority Leader Michael John Gray (D-Augusta), a Woodruff County farmer, over Denise Garner, a retired oncology nurse practitioner and founder of Feed Communities of Fayetteville, to replace outgoing chair Vince Insalaco of Little Rock.
  • The two cities of Little Rock

    The Little Rock City Board illustrated the capital city's division again last week.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: More on pits

    • And don't tell me you care about any toddler. That toddler's suffering is but a…

    • on March 30, 2017
  • Re: More on pits

    • Many different dogs bite many different people. Before reacting out of hysteria and ignorance, better…

    • on March 30, 2017
  • Re: Never his fault

    • Good point. Onward!

    • on March 30, 2017

© 2017 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation