Arkansas is an incredible state for a lot of reasons, but few of us think of our political system as uniquely effective. But the fact is that Arkansas has made remarkable progress on a range of issues in the past 15 years — under Republican and Democratic leadership — while much of the nation has been embroiled in gridlock that has more to do with mud wrestling than good governance.
You know the list of our problems: inadequate educational opportunities, poor health, widespread poverty, racial divisions, etc. But we aren't at the bottom of every category anymore. Today we're leaping past other states in several important categories like children's health and education. We're moving up while others are stagnating or even moving backwards because of their budget shortfalls and polarized politics.
We've transformed our education system — raising standards, boosting teacher pay, renovating facilities and more. We've provided free and high quality preschool to most of the state's low-income children. We've kept a balanced budget and raised the tax revenue necessary to avoid the painful cuts in the social safety net that have crippled other states. We've eliminated income taxes for families in poverty and cut the sales tax on food. We've provided quality health care to most of the state's children. We've expanded economic opportunities. We've made progress on climate change, water quality and conservation. And, with a few notable exceptions, we've avoided passing laws on issues that drive us apart like immigration, abortion and sexual orientation.
Arkansas's ability to take on and solve big problems is a huge strategic advantage — an advantage that is in jeopardy as the divisive national political culture seeps into our state.
Dr. Jay Barth, political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, wrote a compelling new report, commissioned by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, that helps explain why Arkansas has been able to advance while others have stagnated and retreated.
"Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change" examines Arkansas's unique history of tension between progressive reformers and traditionalists who protect the status quo. It's not a partisan history; there are examples of reformers and traditionalists from both parties.
Barth identifies five structural advantages for reform that are uniquely Arkansan: our culture, our small size, our strong nonprofit community, our history of reform and our ability to impact our region and nation.
Among those, Arkansas's unique culture is our most important advantage. We have a long history of caring for those in need while being leery of the reach of government into our private lives on social issues. We are a small state where most of us really do know one another and relationships still drive our politics (as well as everything else), and we believe in compromise and maintaining friendships even when we disagree.
That and the other advantages Barth identifies add up to a culture of progress where we have an opportunity to continue solving the big issues holding us back. More progress on education, poverty, racial disparities, prison reform, public health, economic development and the environment will be good for all of us.
What is holding us back if Arkansas is so primed for reform? Barth explains that despite recent progress, Arkansas has decades of history electing leaders more entrenched in the status quo. And now we are in danger of returning to the bad old days of stagnation. This past legislative session was the most partisan and polarized in modern Arkansas history. And "we the people" are not actively engaged enough to insist on pragmatic, effective representation.
Barth's paper is not meant to whitewash our problems. We know that we have challenges ahead, but we do need to celebrate the progress we've made and hold on to our ability to tackle the hard issues together.
Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. Barth will present "Ripe for Reform" at 8 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, at the Clinton School of Public Service.