Friday, February 17, 2017

Oklahomans strongly favor K-12 spending over higher education

With Oklahoma staring at another significant budget gap this year, state policymakers are looking to prioritize.

To see what Oklahomans are thinking, OCPA commissioned SoonerPoll to ask this question: “The legislature is trying to prioritize areas of state spending. Which of the following areas of spending would you prioritize as most important?”

The clear winner was “K-12 schools” at 47 percent.

“Roads and other transportation expenses” came in second at 20 percent, followed by “health care” (19 percent), “public safety” (9 percent), and “colleges and universities” (5 percent).

The SoonerPoll survey, which was conducted December 19-21 with 440 likely Oklahoma voters, has a margin of error of plus/minus 4.6 percent.

Some readers may recall back in 1995 when U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter was running for president. He was having a hard time gaining traction. “You’re at 1 percent,” his fellow candidate Pat Buchanan quipped, “and that poll’s got a 3 percent margin of error. There’s a possibility Arlen Specter doesn’t exist.”

Higher education’s popularity does exist, but it appears to be rather limited. And I would suggest that Oklahomans’ instincts are sound in that regard; lawmakers should not prioritize government subsidies to colleges and universities.

After all, lawmakers are not skimping on higher education as it is. According to economist Byron Schlomach, a scholar-in-residence at the Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise at Oklahoma State University, states spend an average of 1.6 percent of their Gross State Product (GSP) on higher education. Yet Oklahoma spends 1.9 percent of its GSP on higher education.

So why are we not getting more bang for the buck? One possibility is that we have too many public colleges and universities for a state our size. If we hope to build centers of excellence in Norman and Stillwater, we may need to re-examine our priorities.

Higher education is not efficient and Oklahomans know it. SoonerPoll discovered last year that 82 percent of Oklahomans believe public colleges and universities could be run more efficiently. Fully 80 percent believe that the chancellor of higher education, a former politician (naturally) who is paid more than $411,000 annually, is overpaid.

Moreover, economist Richard Vedder examined the teaching loads at OU and OSU and concluded in 2014 that taxpayers could save $181 million annually if professors taught more students. “Large numbers of faculty carry modest teaching loads, yet also have modest research accomplishments,” he wrote. “If the bottom 80 percent of the faculty taught as much as the top 20 percent, universities could operate with demonstrably fewer faculty members.”

Now granted, research is important too. We want scholars to find better ways to fight diseases, track tornadoes, and so on. But that’s not the only kind of “research” that’s going on. Do we really need an OU professor to publish in a scholarly journal an article entitled “Towards Queering Food Studies: Foodways, Heteronormativity, and Hungry Women in Chicana Lesbian Writing”?

Are the taxpayers of Oklahoma going to feel cheated if another OU professor isn’t able to do research for a scholarly article entitled “Hetero-cis–normativity and the gendering of transphobia”?

This sort of higher education brings to mind former Boston University president John Silber’s remark: “Higher than what?”

Indeed, it’s hard to keep up with the many troubling—sometime harmful—activities on some of our campuses. One official at my alma mater in Norman is paid $220,000 annually to, among other things, oversee mandatory “diversity training” for new students, covering things like sexual identity, unconscious bias, and privilege. Oklahomans are also forced to endure “social justice” activism via OU’s “Activist-in-Residence” program. OU students are learning all about "privilege" and "microaggressions" in a human relations theory class. And of course OU has the inevitable “bias hotline” so that microaggressed crybullies can anonymously inform on their neighbors.

If that’s not Orwellian enough for you, consider that OU president David Boren recently announced that instances of so-called “hate speech” should be reported immediately to the OU Police Department. (What is “hate speech”? Any speech liberals hate.) At a recent campus protest of Donald Trump, one OU official implied that supporting Donald Trump is synonymous with hate.

Worse still, an OU professor called the OUPD after someone handed her an evangelistic tract that said Islam is a false religion and that “Jesus Christ can be your personal Savior.”

It’s small wonder Oklahomans don’t place a high priority on subsidizing this sort of thing.

While we don’t want state lawmakers to micromanage college campuses, it’s not too much to ask that “colleges and universities which draw on public support actually serve as repositories of free inquiry and free thought,” writes American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess. “State officials should feel comfortable demanding assurances from university leaders that public funds are supporting institutions committed to free inquiry and not forced indoctrination. And they should be unapologetic about redirecting state funds to institutions which respect that distinction.”

Better yet, Dr. Hess says, “they may want to consider cutting back on direct state support to institutions and instead fund higher education by empowering students to use funds at the institution or program of their choosing.”

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