The Overton Window of Political Possibility

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. 

An illustration of the Overton Window in action can be seen in the introduction and expansion of public charter schools in Michigan.

2011: Michigan Legislature votes to phase out the charter school cap; Gov. Rick Snyder signs the bill into law.

2011: Mackinac Center publishes study on virtual schools, recommending lifting the cap on virtual charter schools and eliminating the “seat-time requirement” for state funding.

2010: Michigan adopts nation’s first “smart cap,” which exempts high-performing charter schools from the cap, making room for new charters.

2002: Mackinac Center: A primary benefit of the Center’s charter school proposal was to “allow these schools to operate relatively free of the crushing bureaucracy that is killing public education today, and which robs teachers and administrators of the joy and professionalism of their important work.

1999 – 2002: Legislation that would have removed the cap on the number of charter schools failed.

1994: Voters approve Proposal A, which ties funding to enrollment and educational dollars begin following students to the district of their choice.

1993: Michigan becomes one of the first states in the nation to adopt a charter school law.

1992: Mackinac Center: “Competition cannot exist unless new suppliers are free to enter the market for educational services. One option currently under consideration is to ‘charter’ new schools into the public system.”

1988: A family’s ZIP code determined which government school a child could attend. The Mackinac Center called for public charter schools and began laying the intellectual groundwork for school choice.

Today, more than 130,000 Michigan students are attending a public charter school, and estimates indicate that two-thirds of those charter schools have waitlists. A new study from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes shows that students in Michigan public charter schools are outperforming their counterparts in conventional public schools.

Find out more about the Overton Window at overtonwindow