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LeVar Burton: What Romney doesn't get about PBS

By LeVar Burton and Mark Wolfe, Special to CNN
October 8, 2012 -- Updated 2128 GMT (0528 HKT)
PBS offers shows that are educational, free, and free of hard-sell commercials, write LeVar Burton and Mark Wolfe.
PBS offers shows that are educational, free, and free of hard-sell commercials, write LeVar Burton and Mark Wolfe.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • LeVar Burton, Mark Wolfe: Romney has said he would defund PBS. Time to speak up
  • They say PBS helps build literacy, particularly in disadvantaged kids
  • They say from Bert and Ernie to "Reading Rainbow" to NOVA, PBS provides educational tools
  • Writers: Funding cuts would hurt local stations, jobs; this shows misplaced priorities

Editor's note: LeVar Burton is an actor and education advocate and was the longtime host of "Reading Rainbow" on PBS. He is a co-founder, with Mark Wolfe,of RRKidz, which creates children's educational products and is the worldwide license holder to the Reading Rainbow brand.

(CNN) -- Last week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney said that if he were elected president, he would stop funding the Public Broadcasting System.

As the stewards of the Reading Rainbow brand, as parents, as products of families that relied on PBS to provide educational support, we can't stay silent about this. It is an attack not just on PBS, but on America's children. LeVar Burton has spent most of his life as an education advocate, hosting PBS's "Reading Rainbow" for 26 years, testifying before Congress on the importance of education and of public broadcasting, and as a national speaker, promoting literacy. And Mark Wolfe, who was practically raised in Julia Child's TV kitchen (his parents managed publicity for local PBS stations), grew up with Mr. Rogers as a family friend.

Mark Wolfe and LeVar Burton
Mark Wolfe and LeVar Burton

Mr. Rogers, who so eloquently defended PBS against an earlier threat to its funding, can no longer speak out, but we can.

Opinion: Will Big Bird be downsized?

How many of our children learned letters from Bert and Ernie before they ever went to preschool? How many could count because of The Count? How many of our new scientists were introduced to their future profession by Bill Nye? And how many of you discovered a love of books through "Reading Rainbow"? PBS offers kids television shows that are free -- and especially free of hard-sell commercials and corporate points of view. PBS educates our children.

Nearly every day LeVar is approached by parents, teachers and adults who grew up watching PBS, telling him how much the programs they watched benefited them and their students. Studies show that PBS has been responsible for improvements in early, elementary, middle and even high school education. PBS represents 0.00012% of our nation's budget. And while this resource benefits kids across all economic circumstances, it has even greater impact on the disadvantaged. Yet it has been made a political issue.

Burton 'outraged' over Romney PBS remark
A war on Big Bird?
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Santorum: I've voted to kill Big Bird

After Romney's attack, the CEO of PBS, Paula Kerger, commented that "with the enormous problems facing our country, the fact that we are the focus is just unbelievable to me. We're America's biggest classroom. We touch children across the country in every home. Whether you have books in your home or computer or not, almost everyone has a television set."

Mitt Romney said, in last week's debate: "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. ... I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don't pass it: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it."

Opinion: Defund public broadcasting and set it free

This is telling in that while he suggests unspecified litmus tests for funding, he begins by saying PBS has already failed. We wonder what defines "critical" to Mr. Romney. Free educational tools perhaps? PBS is a leading video resource for high schools, offering older kids exceptional age-appropriate programming, such as "NOVA" and Ken Burns historical documentaries; it supplies 20,000 digital tools, such as in-depth teacher lesson plans, for students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade; half a million teachers rely on the PBS educational resource "Learning Media."

What most people don't realize is that if federal funding for PBS were cut, much of the loss would be on the local level. The vast majority of taxpayer funds for PBS ($1.35 per person per year) goes to local stations, many of which serve rural areas, where losing funding would mean stations going dark. We remind Mr. Romney that when small businesses go out of business, not only are their products no longer available to the public, people lose their jobs. Where is the gain in saving the $1.35 a year? We see only loss.

Big Bird stays up to pay a visit to 'SNL'

Well? We as a nation must decide where our priorities are. Is education a priority? Are our children our priority? Are we going to support those priorities or just pay lip service to them? If these are our critical priorities, then we must support efforts like PBS and we must speak out when our children are used as political tools.

What Mitt Romney chooses to ignore or cannot see is that PBS represents the delivery on America's promise to itself: a promise to provide all children, rich or poor, black or white, with quality educational opportunities. This is an ongoing struggle. Schools are underfunded. Teachers are undervalued. And now PBS is under attack by a candidate who wants to lead our country .

Make your own decision about how you feel about Romney's statements against PBS, and act.

But you don't have to take our word for it.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LeVar Burton and Mark Wolfe.

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