Public TV has to move on two fronts to protect Ready to Learn, the Department of Education grant program that supports several PBS Kids series.
The House Appropriations Committee zeroed out RTL June 9 and funding was not restored last week when the full House reversed a major cut in CPB’s appropriation. The fate of the early childhood project now rests with the Senate, which typically is more generous in funding the program.
But even if the Senate negotiates with the House to restore RTL, things will not be the same for the $23 million preschool learning program, which has funded such series as Arthur, Clifford and Between the Lions and supported educational outreach activities of local stations with direct grants.
PBS, which has managed the project for most of its 10 years, seeks to continue its work in a proposal prepared with CPB. Public TV proposes to develop four new literacy-based RTL series and to completely recast supporting outreach
activities. One other applicant is seeking RTL funding for programming; a Department of Education spokesman declined to identify the organization. The department is expected to decide on the RTL contract by late summer or early fall.
In the meantime, CPB announced this month a new three-year grant program, Ready to Lead in Literacy, which aims to help stations continue local outreach activities as they lose their RTL outreach grants. The grants end in September
with the expiration of PBS’s current contract with the Education Department.
During the Bush administration, Ready to Learn has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and at the White House, and federal aid to the service grew 43 percent from 2000 to 2005. Two years ago the Education Department began pressing PBS to improve the educational gains achieved through RTL by requiring more stringent performance measures.
The criticism of RTL that’s far better known in political circles, however, is Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ condemnation of a Postcards from Buster episode that introduces kids matter-of-factly to households that have two mommies.
PBS President Pat Mitchell decided to drop the RTL-backed program from distribution Jan. 25, just hours before Spellings sent Mitchell a letter describing the department’s “strong and very serious concerns” about the episode.
Despite spotty broadcasts around the country, the episode became so well known that public TV lobbyists now see a connection between the controversy and the House’s decision to defund RTL. APTS President John Lawson described the cut as “nothing short of punitive” while denouncing a House appropriations subcommittee’s June 9 vote to zero out RTL.
With President Bush requesting $23 million for RTL in 2006, House lawmakers had no budgetary mandate to kill the program, he said.
“The program has strong support in the president’s budget,” said Mark Erstling, APTS c.o.o., during a June 22 press conference on the House’s proposed funding cuts. “We could not see any other reason for the cuts.”
But neither congressional leaders nor members of the Bush administration were saying explicitly that the RTL cut was payback for Buster’s visit with children of lesbian mommies.
“I have not had one single member of Congress say that to me that there’s any relationship to the controversy over one episode of Postcards from Buster,” Mitchell said during the press conference. In her talks with lawmakers she stressed that it would be a mistake to “exact any kind of message from one episode of a program” that provides educational benefits to children and families, she said.
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Labor-HHS-Education, said in a statement that cuts to public broadcasting were among the “tough choices” his committee made to reconcile “competing priorities with the resources available …. Choices are easy when dollars are plentiful, but that was not the case this year.”
“We are not competing for the huge funding needs for education,” Mitchell said. Because of the economies of scale public TV brings by broadcasting free educational pro-grams and its experience in creating lesson plans and other curricular materials, “we are actually one of the most effective ways that Congress can invest in education.”
Weaning stations from federal aid
Following Education Department guidelines for RTL grant applications, the joint PBS-CPB proposals submitted in May describe concepts for four new literacy-based children’s series and an outreach campaign targeting low-income communities.
The outreach proposal combines promotional campaigns and social marketing techniques aimed at five markets during the first year, expanding to 17 over the five-year contract. The proposal includes extensive plans for evaluating RTL’s effectiveness in improving early childhood literacy.
RTL planners will use U.S. Census data, reading scores and geographic and demographic factors to select the five target markets, said Peggy O’Brien, CPB senior v.p. of education.
Since most participating public TV stations will lose RTL funding under the restructured program, CPB created Ready to Lead in Literacy to help them adapt their local outreach efforts. “The idea is to give stations some money so they won’t have to stop doing things they’re doing and they can also build capacity to find support in their own communities,” O’Brien said.
RTL grants to stations range from $25,000 to $80,000 annually, depending on the size of the population served, said Charlotte Brantley, RTL senior director for PBS. CPB will provide up to $35,000 to a station that agrees to focus its outreach on early childhood literacy, provide matching funds and cultivate other funding sources and partnerships, among other requirements. The grants decrease by increments of $10,000 over three years. CPB anticipates awarding grants to up to 100 stations.