THIS WEEK WILL mark a critical moment for American public broadcasting as the U.S. House of Representatives takes up debate over funding for public radio and public television.
A disturbing precursor came recently when the House subcommittee overseeing public broadcasting made massive cuts to its funding, saying that in a budget year when the country is facing record deficits, Congress has to begin to distinguish between "must do," "need to do" and "nice to do" programs.
I couldn't agree more.
But to say we must fund education or health care instead of public broadcasting is a false choice. The truth is that public television is not competing with those critical national priorities; we are addressing them.
The Public Broadcasting Service and our stations are the single largest educational institution in America. As a result of 35 years of putting children and education first, PBS is now the top choice of American teachers for video in the classroom. We're a leading source of online lesson plans for schools and for parents home-schooling their children. We're top providers of distance learning offered by colleges and a critical resource for adults to learn to read, pass the GED, learn English and develop new skills for the workplace.
Because of our economy of scale and local infrastructure, we are one of the most efficient ways Congress can invest in education. Every dollar spent on a PBS children's television show impacts tens of millions of children who will learn literacy skills and educational concepts by watching Sesame Street, Arthur and our 25 other nonviolent educational programs that are unique in the marketplace in their quality and effectiveness.
Studies of the PBS Kids show Between the Lions found that kindergarten children who watched the program outperformed those who did not by nearly 4-to-1 on a variety of measurements. It is penny wise and pound foolish for Congress to underutilize the massive power of media to educate Americans at a time when the efficiency and impact of PBS and our member stations have never been more needed.
In Ohio, 96 public school districts are served every year by their local PBS station's education services, including the station's partnership with Akron Head Start. In the Idaho school system, Idaho Public Television broadcasts curriculum overnight so that public schools receive over 1,300 hours of educational materials, a critical need in rural school districts that cannot always provide their curriculum locally. Public television stations are frequently the last locally owned and locally operated media outlets in their communities.
Congress has considered cutting funding to public television before, and every time, Americans have rallied to tell their representatives that public broadcasting isn't an expendable luxury but a vital national service.
Government funding for public television amounts to just $1 per person per year. A Roper survey recently showed that 82 percent of American citizens consider those dollars "well spent," ranking PBS second only to military activities in value for their tax dollars for the second consecutive year. And most favor more federal support for it, not less.
At this time of shrinking local education budgets, increasing media consolidation and rapidly coarsening television content, PBS is more needed than ever as a leader in education and as a haven for children and adults from the vulgarity, profanity and violence that many observe are the hallmarks of so much of today's commercial media.
It has never been more important to ensure that there remains one viable and vital public service media enterprise - one that is independent and community-based, one that belongs to the public and serves it, regardless of location or ability to pay. It is one that does not add to the media circus but is an oasis from it, using the transformative potential of communications to educate children and adults in communities across the country.
That enterprise is American public television. The American people clearly know that. And when the House votes on public broadcasting funding, I hope it will do the right thing and ensure the continued viability of this essential institution.
Pat Mitchell has been president and CEO of PBS since 2000.