Still ripe for reform in Arkansas?

Lauren Williams's picture
Thursday, May 23, 2013

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 There, I grappled with whether "Ripe for Reform" is now simply a historical document or whether it remains a viable model for political change in an emphatically two-party (and GOP-trending) Arkansas.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?

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