A case study
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.
The Mackinac Center has long argued that the quality of public education could be improved — and taxpayer dollars could be stretched — by privatizing non-instructional support services such as food, transportation and custodial services.
For most of the second half of the 20th Century, public school officials were severely hampered in their ability to contract services to private vendors. In 1975 an appeals court ruled that contracting was a mandatory subject of collective bargaining — school districts could not use private contractors without negotiating with teachers unions.
2012: The Mackinac Center’s most recent Michigan School Privatization Survey found that 61 percent of school districts contracted out at least one service, for a statewide savings of $12.8 million.
2007: Mackinac Center Fiscal Policy Director Michael D. LaFaive released “A School Privatization Primer for Michigan School Officials, Media and Residents.” The primer examined national and state-wide privatization trends and provided recommendations for school districts seeking to stretch education dollars.
2001: The Mackinac Center began surveying every Michigan school district to evaluate which districts used private-sector vendors. In 2001, 31 percent of school districts contracted out at least one of their food, custodial or transportation services.
1994: The Michigan Legislature passed Public Act 112, which prohibited unions from negotiating over the privatization of noninstructional support services. This new law empowered school districts to seek out the most cost-effective vendor without needing the union’s permission.
1994: A Mackinac Center investigation revealed that the MEA outsourced the same services that it sought to keep locked into the public school context. Rather than use its own unionized employees, the MEA contracted out its custodial, food, security and mailing functions. Three of the four firms the MEA contracted with were non-union companies.
1993: In an internal document the Michigan Education Association stated that one of its top priorities was opposition to “any privatization of public school functions.”
1993: The Mackinac Center and the Reason Foundation co-published a series of privatization manuals recommending that school districts reduce their expenses by outsourcing non-instructional costs.
1992: Mackinac Center President Larry Reed called for privatization of school services. The Mackinac Center also started publishing the Michigan Privatization Report. In the inaugural issue we stated: “[P]rivatization in our state has gone from the textbooks to the headlines in the twinkling of an eye.”