Sesame's Open Season 

Public broadcasting supports a core function of government: educating our children. Now is not the time to foreclose on Sesame Street.

click to enlarge Photo illustration by Scott Elmquist and Ed Harrington.
  • Photo illustration by Scott Elmquist and Ed Harrington.

Years ago I would sit with my children and watch Public Broadcasting Service programs such as “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.” Today I still find myself sitting down, this time with my grandchildren, to watch shows such as “Sid the Science Kid.” One thing I've observed over the years is the incredible power of PBS shows to transform children's learning experiences, helping them shape their imaginations and develop critical thinking skills.

Virginia's public broadcasting dares to provide unique programming that augments and supports the state's most noble of missions: educating our youth. Cutting that funding would imperil the commonwealth's ability to expand the educational mission outside of the limits of classrooms. It is from a wealth of experience that I know education is the great equalizer. And it's not lightly that I take up the pen to speak out against cutting funds for Virginia's public broadcasting.

With all respect to the governor, Virginia cannot afford to defund our public broadcasting now or in the future. The state Senate understands this, and hasn't proposed any cuts to public broadcasting in its budget amendments. I hope it will be the pleasure of the General Assembly to restore the proposed cuts while we work with the House of Delegates to finalize the state budget.

Repeated attempts to eliminate funding for public broadcasting in Virginia have been made under the assumption that those expenses don't support “core functions of government.”

Public broadcasting does support a core function of government, however: It plays a remarkable role not only in helping educators and parents challenge children outside the classroom, but also by substantially enriching classroom instruction through materials created for teachers to use in lessons. This educational support it provides our schoolchildren would be endangered if its state funding is cut.

Research confirms that the public realizes the value of PBS as the No. 1 educational media brand. Some of the findings have shown that children from low-income families who watch even just two PBS programs are more likely to score as much as 46 percent higher on standardized tests than their peers who don't tune in. Pre-K teachers consistently identify the service as the No. 1 source for online content used in their classrooms. PBS Kids offers nine literacy series and 15 series on science, technology, engineering and math. Few, if any, commercial stations can boast that level of support for education. Simply put, no other station or channel provides the type of service that Virginia's PBS affiliates offer.

Public broadcasting's audience is also very important to note. PBS Kids attracts a higher percentage of viewers from Hispanic, African-American and low-income homes compared with their representation in the general population. This is a heartening statistic to hear as we continue working to ensure the achievement gap is closed and that all Virginia's children have a bright future regardless of their location, regardless of their race or color. Public broadcasting helps us bridge that gap.

Eliminating state funding would leave Virginia's public broadcasting stations with an uncertain future. Virginia's stations, like all public broadcast stations, are federally barred from commercial advertising. They can't legally make up the shortfalls that state defunding would cause with advertisements. Given the unique nature of its educational programming, it's also very unlikely that the major networks or pay-access channels would willingly find a home for shows that would not be profitable.

The return on investing in public broadcasting is immeasurable in the lives of children who enjoy and learn from its programs. It brings families together, and it advances learning at an early age. For the price we pay, there's no better deal for the future benefits.

I do appreciate Virginia's record of fiscal discipline and great financial management, but we owe this resource to the many Virginia children, whether in rural or urban areas, who have limited opportunities to explore the worlds of literacy, language, math, science and the arts. It doesn't matter whether the barriers children face are geographic or socio-economic. Virginia should do what it can to make sure schoolchildren can overcome those barriers.

If our public stations face crippling shortfalls, they may close their doors or cease to produce the programs that many of us enjoyed growing up. Matters of general public interest may find themselves without a home because of lack of profitability. This includes, as the governor wryly noted, programs such as his speech on the state of our commonwealth.

Unlike the rest of broadcast television, the value of public broadcasting has always been not in the profits it brings, but in the lives it enriches and the minds it helps shape and challenge. In some parts of the state without broadband access, including some inner-city and rural communities, public broadcasting is the only option other than network television.

Now is not the time to foreclose on Sesame Street and put Clifford out on the street. Public broadcasting programs are often the only exposure many children may have to educational programming.  S

In the Senate of Virginia, Henry L. Marsh III represents the 16th District, which includes Richmond, Petersburg, Hopewell and the counties of Chesterfield, Dinwiddie and Prince George.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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