My neighbor recently asked me, “What do you do at a think tank?”
“Shift the Overton Window,” I responded.
The Overton Window is a term named for the late Joe Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan-based sister think tank. Overton described the movement of public policy ideas from novel to mainstream. His window covers the range of policy options acceptable to the public.
Various things can influence public perception about an idea, including think tanks like the John Locke Foundation, media including Carolina Journal, along with corporate news, social media, Hollywood, and crises. Since politics is downstream from culture, politicians, who are concerned about elections, rarely stray too far outside of the Overton Window.
Two Gov. Roy Cooper signatures signal that North Carolina’s Overton Window is expanding in favor of freedom, thanks, in part, to the work we’ve been doing at Locke and CJ for three decades. Cooper’s draconian COVID lockdowns over the last two years have accelerated that movement.
The most recent signature occurred Jan. 13 when the notoriously anti-educational choice Cooper quietly signed a proclamation in support of the 11th annual National School Choice Week.
It’s not that Cooper is indifferent to school choice; prior to Jan. 13, he had been openly hostile to it. Every year since Cooper took office in 2017, the N.C. Association for Public Charter Schools has asked the governor to sign a proclamation for National School Choice Week, the News and Observer reported. Every year he’s ignored that request until now.
His signature is more than ink on a piece of paper. It reflects that even Cooper knows North Carolina’s Overton Window on education policy has shifted away from simply funding government-controlled schools toward more educational options.
Our polls and parental action have been showing it for years. Over 81% of likely N.C. voters support choice in education. Nearly 23% of North Carolina’s 1,847,701 K-12 students are in an educational structure away from a traditional, brick-and-mortar public school.
Smart state legislators either recognized or agreed with the policy shift and provided N.C. families with a wide array of options including charter schools, magnet schools, online schools, homeschools, private schools, traditional public schools, and resources like educational savings accounts and Opportunity Scholarships.
It hasn’t always been that way. In 1996, when North Carolina’s first charter school enabling legislation became law, it capped charter schools at 100 statewide. Opportunity Scholarships and ESAs didn’t exist. It remained that way until voters turned over control of the legislature to Republicans in 2011. That change in leadership ushered in a decade-long renaissance of K-12 policy reforms that expanded charter schools and provided resources for ESAs and vouchers.
During this renaissance, Cooper and anti-choice special-interest groups vigorously and dishonestly opposed choice. Every one of Cooper’s budgets has defunded Opportunity Scholarships for low-income students, claiming they “are wrong. They hurt public schools. They hurt students.”
COVID has shifted the Overton Window even more toward educational choice. While teachers unions worked to keep schools closed, parents were thrust into the role of teacher. They didn’t like what they saw with the curriculum and had to grapple with their children’s learning loss.
When schools did reopen, school boards forced unnecessary mask mandates on small children and denigrated parents who criticized virtual classes and COVID restrictions. Now, the policy push is “fund students, not systems,” meaning direct educational dollars to individual students rather than government-run school districts. Legislatures across the country, including our own, are responding.
Last November, voters held candidates accountable. They flipped school boards across the country. Most surprising was the governor’s race in deep-blue Virginia. Voters there elected GOP businessman Glenn Youngkin over heavily favored, anti-school choice Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
My guess is the Youngkin victory has Cooper concerned about 2022. He isn’t running, but a lot of his Democrat colleagues are. If Virginia is an early indication, opposition to popular ideas inside the Overton Window will cost them. Democrats could lose control of the state Supreme Court, and Republicans could win a legislative supermajority. Democrats will try to blame redistricting, but the fact is that they are too far removed from the Overton Window.
That may be why the other signature came shortly after Youngkin’s victory. After vetoing every budget in prior years, Cooper finally signed one passed by the GOP-controlled legislature.
This year’s budget included historic tax reform and expanded educational choice with additional funding for Opportunity Scholarships and ESAs. Two things Cooper vehemently opposes, and he was denied the Medicaid expansion he desperately wants. He signed it anyway.
Cooper’s two signatures are more political strategy than a road-to-Damascus conversion. He’s smart enough to know he’s well outside the Overton Window, but he’d like to have voters believe he’s not. The most important point is that North Carolina’s Overton Window is wide open to freedom. Candidates will have to embrace it if they want to win in November.
This piece first appeared in the Feb / March print edition of Carolina Journal.