His company will, Burton suggests, “change the lives of millions of children.”
It’s hard to disagree with that kind of optimism. It’s so imminently, self-evidently agreeable, in fact, that within hours of the fundraiser going up, more than 13,000 people have donated more than $600,000. But all the enthusiasm raises some obvious questions: If Reading Rainbow is so epically popular, then why was the show cancelled to begin with? And now that it’s coming back — as a for-profit company, not a charity — is it really the best vehicle for teaching literacy to “millions of children”?
A bit of recent history is critical here. Reading Rainbow was cancelled abruptly in 2009 after nearly three decades on the air. Per John Grant, the content director at WNED Buffalo, which co-produced the series, it would have cost “several hundred thousand dollars” to renew the show — i.e. far less than what the Kickstarter is asking for now. But neither WNED nor PBS wanted to pony up because both believed that the show was no longer the best way to teach kids reading skills. And in the round of Education Department grants distributed before Reading Rainbow shut down, money went primarily to programs that targeted low-income kids ages 2 to 8. When the show went off the air in 2009, NPR explained it this way:
Research has directed programming toward phonics and reading fundamentals as the front line of the literacy fight. Reading Rainbow occupied a more luxurious space — the show operated on the assumption that kids already had basic reading skills and instead focused on fostering a love of books.
In other words, when Reading Rainbow began in 1983, the big question was, “how do we get kids interested in reading?” By 2009, that question had become, “how do we teach kids to read, period?”
Unfortunately, it’s unclear how the new, digital Reading Rainbow will address that disparity — if it chooses to at all. The current Reading Rainbow app, which the Kickstarter claims it will expand on, is built on the foundations of the classic show: book read-alongs, “video field trips” — the stuff that worked wonders in the ’80s, and requires lots of bandwidth in the present day.
In fact, while the Kickstarter promises to deliver more books to low-income kids, there are already some hints that it’s not totally up to speed with those same kids’ digital realities. It’s well-documented fact, for instance, that low-income households are disproportionately more likely to access the Internet by cellphone. And yet Reading Rainbow wants to put its app on desktop computers first — which requires both computer ownership and high-speed Internet access. (Less than half of households earning less than $30,000 a year have high-speed broadband, per Pew.) To further complicate this Reading-Rainbow-as-literacy-charity narrative, WNED also claims that the show is already popular, and therefore available, in “classrooms nationwide.” It’s definitely available, at least in part, on YouTube.
All this adds up to a criticism that has been levied at high-profile Kickstarter campaigns before: Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own … which, despite Burton’s charisma, is exactly what the Rainbow reboot is.
Don’t get me wrong: Anything that puts books in kids’ hands is good, and anything that even incrementally helps them to read is wonderful. If you’re donating to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter out of nostalgia for a show you watched and loved, by all means, proceed.
But if you’re donating to Reading Rainbow because of the grandiose charity rhetoric Burton’s employing on Kickstarter, you might want to look elsewhere — maybe the nonprofit Children’s Literacy Initiative or the Washington, D.C.-based First Book, both of which get high grades from Charity Navigator. They might not have LeVar’s nostalgia appeal, but there’s no doubt who those charities serve.