He made major improvements in the area he cared most about: education. A national report came out about the education system of Arkansas that said, “By almost any standard, the Arkansas system of education must be regarded as inadequate. Children of the state are not being offered the same opportunity to develop their individual capacities as children in other sates. From an educational standpoint, the average child in Arkansas would be much better off attending the public schools of almost any other state in the country.”
Clinton dedicated a large portion of the 72nd session of the State Legislature in trying to move Arkansas from its ranking of 50th among the 50 states in education. His budget provided for Arkansas’s largest ever increase in financial support for public elementary and secondary education. He did not believe that “just throwing dollars at the schools would guarantee a quality education." He linked his increases in the education budget with legislation that established procedures for measuring both the programs designed to improve the quality of education and the performance of public schools in education. Clinton's budget included a 40.5 percent increase in elementary and secondary school funds, a $1,200 salary increase for teachers, and increased funds to meet rising overhead costs. In 1978, the salary for an Arkansas teacher was the lowest in the country.
Clinton won approval for a statewide educational testing program for measuring performance in the basic subjects. He believed it was an important diagnostic tool for individual teachers and students. The first tests were given in April, 1980. The scores reflected a glaring need for improvement.
In 1979, only a few school districts had programs for gifted and talented students. Under Governor Clinton, grants totaling almost $400,000 were made to sixty-five local districts for gifted and talented children. Clinton was also instrumental for setting up the governor's school summer program at Hendrix College for over 250 outstanding Arkansas students from across the state.
Clinton also implemented other important education reforms, such as the passing of legislation to require all teachers to take the National Teachers Examination before they could be initially certified to teach in Arkansas or before they could teach a new subject. He also enabled all state children to go to kindergarten by increasing funding for transportation and teaching materials.
Clinton set up a vocational education and training task force to study the long-range needs of the states' vocational training programs.
The standard of education reform set by Clinton during this first term would later establish a model for the nation.
Clinton had successfully campaigned for governor on the promise to raise money for state highways after a state commissioned report concluded that 8,154 miles of highway needed various improvements to meet the needs of the citizens. Some of the roads were badly deteriorated; they have not been substantially repaired for fifteen years. Clinton and the state legislature were caught in what the press characterized as a “no-win” situation. The governor had the option of either letting the damaged roads remain as they were, or increasing taxes to generate revenue needed for repairs. It was a serious dilemma from a political point of view, since neither option would be politically popular.
Clinton was under intense pressure from the highway department and its commissioners, as well from dozens of city and county officials, to raise highway funds. But he wanted to generate revenue without taking it away from public schools, health services, human services and other programs that he considered essential. Clinton’s original proposal to raise $45 million annually for road repair relied as much as possible on existing revenue sources. He supported raising user fees – registration and title transfer fees – and raising taxes on tires and gasoline. Clint’s original plan was to switch from a fee system based on the cars' weight to one based on its value. This could have saved most motorists money since about one half of the cars registered in Arkansas were at least five years old.
Nevertheless, organized interests opposed to other aspects of Clinton's plan forced the governor to revert to the old weight based system of fee payments. Unfortunately much of the revenues were to be raised from the many Arkansans who owned cheaper but heavier used cars. Newer, more expensive cars were lighter than the older cars and got better mileage.
About 1,130 highway construction and repair projects were started during this time.
In the end, registration fees nevertheless doubled, and Arkansans, especially the poor and the fixed income retirees who bought heavier used cars therefore had to pay higher title transfer bills, reacted in fury.
During his first term in office, Clinton surrounded himself with brilliant, young, reform – minded, out of state employees.
He also made enemies with several of the powerful special interests groups in the state. The Chamber of Commerce was upset when he changed the name of the Arkansas Industrial Development Commission to the Department of Economic Development, and altered its focus from industrial recruitment to small business development. Also, to bring conservationists together with their opponents who favored logging rights, the governor held hear-ins on the wholesale clear cutting of forests. This angered the Arkansas timber industry.
Attempts by Clinton to improve the state health-care system also ran into trouble. The Clinton administration proposed four rural health clinics, hoping to bring medical services to needy areas and made extensive efforts to recruit physicians to medically underserved areas. The plan, however, was opposed by the medical community who did not like the idea of part time doctors making periodic visits to rural clinics. Many rural areas in Arkansas found it difficult to attract full time doctors.