By Caroline Grannan, San Francisco
Parents Across America Founding Member
There are times when we see public opinion or the tone of media coverage shifting noticeably. I blogged about such a shift earlier today, when I posted about a Los Angeles Times article that focused on how a Parent Trigger campaign is ripping a disadvantage school community apart. That focus marked a significant shift from the overwhelming positive, unquestioning news coverage the Parent Trigger has received in the past.
This kind of shift is described by a concept in politics called the Overton Window, which I learned about from my son, a college poli-sci student.
The Overton Window concept comes from the right, though it’s not inherently partisan. According to Wikipedia, this concept “describes a ‘window’ in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue.” A key part of this concept is that the window can move, and that’s what advocates try to achieve. The Wikipedia entry describes the degrees of acceptance of an idea as ranging from unthinkable through radical, acceptable, sensible and popular, to becoming policy.
In the case of the Parent Trigger, I’m one of the advocates working to shift its Overton Window from the “popular and admired” position to the “discredited and rejected” position. That’s because the Parent Trigger is very damaging to school communities and offers no hope of improving education – rather, it’s designed to enrich charter school operators and keep the bounteous funding flowing in for its creator, the AstroTurf (fake grassroots) group Parent Revolution.
Coincidentally, “school choice” is the signature example of the inventor of the Overton Window. It’s named after its creator, the late Joe Overton, who was with a right-wing Michigan so-called think tank (actually advocacy organization), the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Overton came up with the idea to clarify the role of so-called think tanks in promoting their chosen policies.
Here’s the wording from the Mackinac Center’s website: “If a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. … Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.” The website describes how “the window of political possibilities in Michigan began to expand to where politicians could advocate home schooling, school choice and even charter schools without losing at the polls.”
Quoting from Wikipedia: “Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas.” But Wikipedia’s wording expands on that, explaining: “The technique relies on people promoting ideas even more radical than the previous ‘outer fringe’ ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable.”
So how has it worked? Charter schools are currently policy. Attacking and blaming teachers is currently popular. How did those ideas get to those points? Well, there are further-out positions. There are vouchers, which I fall into the “radical” category. The furthest-out anti-public-education view is known as “separation of school and state,” which espouses completely eliminating public schools and all public funding for education. I wish it were safe to say that view was “unthinkable,” but it’s certainly outside the mainstream. Were those concepts floated to move the Overton Window to increase the popularity of charter schools, privatization, and the de-unionizing and degrading of the teaching profession?
Of course I’m happy to see the Overton Window shifting in favor of my views, though I can’t stomach tactics as dishonest and Macchiavellian as insincerely promoting extreme ideas purely as a strategy. One righteous example in which I’ve been involved, and in which the window moved legitimately, is soda sales in K-12 schools. The notion of banning soda sales was somewhere between unthinkable and radical when I first got involved in advocating for healthier school food in 2002. Now it’s policy in California, and ranges from acceptable to popular elsewhere.
Watching the Overton Window shift on the Parent Trigger is interesting and promising. I hope it shifts quickly, so we can stop wasting time on fads and scams and work instead on real reforms that genuinely improve schools.