The Overton Window of Political Possibility

A Case Study: Schools of Choice

The Overton Window of Political Possibility is a model to explain how changes in public policy occur. When evaluating the options within any specific public policy issue, only a relatively narrow window of options will be considered politically acceptable by politicians. The window of acceptable policies is not primarily defined by the politician’s preference, but by what he or she can support without jeopardizing re-election. As society embraces new ideas, the Overton Window shifts to include additional public policy options that were previously deemed unacceptable. 

For decades, public school students in Michigan were assigned to a public school based on their ZIP code. Students stuck in substandard schools had few alternatives and excellent schools were essentially closed off to students who had the wrong address. Educational options have expanded since then; the “Schools of Choice” program allows students to migrate to a public school outside their district.

2013: Mackinac Center Education Policy Director Audrey Spalding published a study that analyzed student participation in Schools of Choice. The study found that during the 2011-12 school year, nearly 100,000 K-12 students participated — more than double the number of students 10 years ago. The study also found that students generally transfer to districts with higher graduation rates, higher test scores and lower dropout rates.

2011: Gov. Rick Snyder called for requiring school districts to participate in Schools of Choice. “Providing open access to a quality education without boundaries is essential. No longer should school districts be allowed to opt out from accepting out-of-district students.” The state began to financially incentivize public school participation in Schools of Choice.

2000: School districts retained the option of participating in Schools of Choice. In a report published by the Mackinac Center, Matthew Ladner and Matthew Brouillette criticized school districts for limiting the program’s potential positive effect: “The public ‘schools-of-choice’ program has had very limited impact on school districts, primarily because only those districts that wish to participate do so. The ability of districts to restrict competition severely limits the good it might otherwise do.”

1999: Public Act 119 expanded Schools of Choice by allowing state aid to follow students who transferred to a local district within a contiguous ISD — significantly expanding the number of local school districts a student could choose to attend. For the 1999-2000 school year, 17,440 students used SOC.

1996: Public Act 300 created the opportunity for students to transfer to a new school district within the student’s resident intermediate school district (ISDs are typically county-wide, and surround several local school districts), with the state funding following the student. The law removed the requirement that the resident district approve a student’s transfer. In the program’s first year, 5,611 students attended a school in a nonresident district.