APTS President Pat Butler responds to Cap Hill letters to defund pubcasting

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Here is the letter from Patrick Butler, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, to members of Congress in response to letters circulating in the House and Senate to defund public broadcasting, from Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Sen. James DeMint (R-S.C.):

I thought it might be a good time to bring you briefly up to date on what public broadcasters are doing in service to their communities and your constituents, and what we’re doing to perform these services more efficiently and comprehensively with the help of advances in technology, business practice and community partnerships.

In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, President Eisenhower had a vision of public broadcasting as “educational television,” enriching the understanding of America’s students in many academic disciplines, with a particular emphasis on engaging students in science, technology, engineering and math to meet the challenges of the space race and the Cold War.

The President saw public television, in effect, as an element of America’s national defense (in the same way he saw the interstate highway system), and 55 years later it remains just so.

Through PBS Learning Media, the National Learning Registry, Sesame Workshop, and dozens of local and statewide educational initiatives undertaken by public television stations nationwide, public broadcasters constitute America’s largest classroom.

Our work in early childhood education and development is well known, with dozens of peer-reviewed studies demonstrating how we help millions of pre-school children, particularly in inner cities and rural areas, get ready to learn and succeed in an academic environment.

With the nearly 20,000 interactive, standards-based, curriculum-aligned digital learning objects we’ve created from the best of public television programming over the last 40 years — as well as top-quality content from the Library of Congress, the National Archives, NASA, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies — we are now helping to revolutionize the teaching and learning experience in K-12 classrooms across the country.

We bring world-class professors to the most remote schools in the country through “virtual high schools” we operate across the United States.

We run the most comprehensive GED program for hundreds of thousands of people whose high school education was interrupted prior to completion.

We create educational video games like “Lure of the Labyrinth” with universities like Johns Hopkins and MIT to teach kids algebra while they think they’re having fun.

The long-time Superintendent of Education in Maryland has credited Maryland Public Television’s Thinkport online learning platform with helping raise Maryland public school students’ scholastic achievement to the highest in the country for the past four consecutive years.

As former Governor Jeb Bush, one of the nation’s most authoritative voices on education reform, told me last fall, our educational content, deployed with the latest in learning technology, can be the “tip of the spear” in educational reform to help improve the academic achievement of millions of American students.

Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska, chairman of the National Governors Association, praised our work in education at our Public Media Summit in February.

These examples only scratch the surface of what we’re doing in education, and education is only one of the essential public services we’re performing for the American people.

Public television spectrum provides the backbone for emergency alert, public safety and homeland security services in States across the country. We’re the “C-SPAN” of many State governments. We’re the biggest job trainer in Nevada.

And we’re at the center of hundreds of community partnerships addressing issues ranging from gangs to obesity, from the challenges of Native Americans and recent immigrants to the service of veterans and military families.

This is not work typically associated with media enterprises, and our colleagues in commercial media have their own business missions and models to pursue. Our mission is to be public service media, to provide these services for free to everyone, everywhere, every day.

We’re also trying to do this work more efficiently, and we are pursuing such initiatives as joint master control rooms, consolidated back-office operations, channel sharing, spectrum leasing and other innovations that may help us improve our service without increasing our costs.

And what is the cost to the federal taxpayer for all these local services and the works of Ken Burns, Sesame Street, Great Performances, American Experience, A Capitol Fourth, Nova, Nature, Masterpiece’s dramatization of the complete works of Jane Austen, and so much more, to say nothing of the extraordinary news coverage and cultural contributions of NPR?

It is $1.35 per citizen. In Japan, it’s $63. In Great Britain, $84. We can provide these services at such low cost to taxpayers because for every dollar in federal funding we receive, we generate $6 in non-federal contributions from foundations, corporations, State and local governments, and “viewers like you.”

This is the largest and most successful public-private partnership in the United States. And it is one of the reasons President Reagan changed his mind about federal funding of public broadcasting during a conversation with Ken Burns while Ken was completing his masterpiece, The Civil War.

The President told Ken the public-private funding model was exactly right for the American approach to public broadcasting, and he expressed great gratitude to Ken for “preserving the national memory” — yet another mission central to public television’s public service.

170 million Americans regularly rely on the public service media I’ve described here. Public opinion surveys routinely rank the news and public affairs programming of public broadcasting as the most trusted in the nation.

Nearly 70 percent, across the political spectrum, support continued federal funding — including 50 percent of self-identified Tea Party advocates.

And for nine years in a row, since the question was first asked, Americans have said that public broadcasting is the second best investment of federal funds, after national defense alone.

This investment has been reduced by over $50 million — about 13 percent of our overall federal funding — over the past two fiscal years, in response to the budget and deficit challenges facing our country. Our core Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding has been flat, and level funding is all we’re requesting for the foreseeable future.

In a 2007 study — before the economy collapsed — the GAO concluded that federal funding is essential to the operation of public broadcasting, as none of our other funders supports the station operations, infrastructure needs, universal service requirements, educational missions and other special circumstances of non-commercial, non-profit public broadcasting.

We’re trying to do very important things on a remarkably modest budget. Our mission is to create a well-educated, well-informed, cultured and civil society capable of performing the duties of self-government in the world’s greatest democracy.

We believe there’s nothing more important to American society, and we believe this is work worthy of federal support, as bipartisan majorities of Congress and Presidents of both parties have agreed for four decades.

Eliminating federal funding for public broadcasting would reduce the federal budget by one-hundredth of one percent. But it would have a devastating effect on all the good work we’re trying to do for the American people.

I’d be very grateful for consideration of these facts while making a decision about whether or not to support Senator DeMint’s proposal, and my colleagues here at the Association of Public Television Stations and I would be delighted to elaborate on any of the points I’ve tried to make here.


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