I admitted earlier this month that I haven’t been engaged this presidential election. I’m hearing about the election and the debates from the Grand Overseer. And if something interests me, then I find additional sources. Which is exactly what I did when Mitt Romney said he would defund the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) during the first presidential debate in order to cut federal spending.

Jim Lehr: “What are the differences between the two of you as to how you would go about tackling the deficit problem in this country?”

Mitt Romney: “Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.

I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. That’s number one.” — transcript of the October 3, 2012 presidential debate

Point of order, what Romney was really talking about was cutting funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). [Though I’m not sure why he didn’t just say that.] The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) are private, non-profit media enterprises that receive federal funding from CPB through Community Service Grants. The CPB was established by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, so this entity exists by federal statute. If Romney truly intends to defund public media, then I think he will have to repeal this law. That would take a lot of work for little payoff. The CPS budget is about .01% of the federal deficit — and after all the deficit was the context in which all this hullabaloo was raised.

The Congress hereby finds and declares that it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, educational, and cultural purposes.” — Public Broadcasting Act

A number of people have articulated why eliminating funding to CPB would hurt rural stations more than any other part of public media. Supporting rural public media is a major goal of the CPB model, which is why 40% of CPB grants go to rural stations even though less than 20% of the U.S. population is rural. Since others have made the argument for funding rural stations, I won’t get into that. I would just like to add that building rural infrastructure, which public media helps accomplish, has long been part of the mission of the federal government.

“Stations in rural parts of the country, where their parts of the federal funding is 40, 50, 60 percent, those stations will go off the air,” PBS chief executive Paula Kerger told CNN this morning. “The reach of our work is so extensive and so deeply rooted in education … the fact that we are in this debate at all is just incomprehensible.” — ABC News

Let’s get back to Romney’s actual response, “Is the program so critical it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.” He’s implying that some programs WILL be worth borrowing money from China. Ultimately what I get from his statement about “worth” is that he wants to hold programs accountable for the federal money they get. Accountability is the idea that programs are funded for a purpose and if those programs don’t actually serve that purpose, they should be changed or ended. A big story that helped make accountability a government standard was about D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education). The program received substantial federal funding and was ultimately found to have “no effect on adolescents’ use of alcohol, cigarettes or inhalants, or on their future intentions to use these substances (Ringwalt, Ennett and Holt 1991).” So legislators thought, “Hey, we better make sure stuff is working before we give stuff more money.” Accountability was essentially the architect of No Child Left Behind under President Bush and was also a main component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act under President Obama. I think its safe to say accountability is pervasive enough in politics that it is not partisan — both sides of the aisle would rather pay for something that works versus something that doesn’t.

So while Romney implies that some programs will be worth borrowing money from China, he simultaneously assumes the federal statute for CPB is NOT worth borrowing money from China. I like to challenge that assumption. Since Romney called out Big Bird specifically, I will challenge that assumption by looking at “Sesame Street” specifically.

Does “Sesame Street “work? Romney is assuming the answer is, “No.” I say the answer is, “Yes.”

Sesame Street was designed in the late 1960s based on child development research. It was the first time research had been used to build television programming and really it was the first attempt at educational programming. The nice thing about a TV show based on research is that it had “built in” measurable outcomes. That is, the things the program was supposed to do were easy to see because the things the program was supposed to do were outlined in the research on which it was based, and those things could be tested. And research since the 1970s shows that “Sesame Street” works. Here is a list of positive outcomes “Sesame Street” has on child viewers:

  • Letter recognition
  • Number recognition
  • Word recognition (including printed words)
  • Positive attitude toward school
  • Better peer relations
  • Improved school readiness
  • Improved vocabulary
  • Long-term positive impact on English, math, and science

Most of the research on “Sesame Street” compared children who watched the show to children who did not watch the show. The great thing about this research — aside that it was actually happening (program evaluation didn’t take off as a major field until the 1990s) — is that it was used to IMPROVE “Sesame Street,” not just to PROVE it worked. [BTW, this is how all evaluation should work!] These results hold for kids in other countries, too, not just in the U.S. I mean, if you really think about it, “Sesame Street” was kind of the first MOOC (massively open online course), a new kind of online education taking education by storm right now.

So, I contend that “Sesame Street” works. Is it worth borrowing money from China? Well, that’s a slanted question to begin with because it assumes the U.S. economy will never recover enough to be self-sustaining and we will always be in debt to China. Is that true? That’s another post entirely. But I think it’s interesting Romney predicts this will be the case even if he wins the presidency.

What about PBS in general? Does that work? I don’t know how to answer that. Although its programming has won multiple awards for many years. If you know of any overall research on PBS, I’d love to hear about it.

This is certainly not the first time funding for PBS has come under political fire. But as I explained a bit ago, funding for this enterprise is via federal statute; it’s not willy-nilly, whimsical, or hidden-in-a-little-known-rider stuff. Which makes me wonder about Romney’s sincerity in calling out “Big Bird” for budget cuts. I think this is “rhubarb rhubarb” rhetoric, an easy target for an empty threat. At least I hope it is because I think PBS and Big Bird are worth my federal tax dollars.

What do you think, Realm? Is Big Bird worth federal funding?

+ Featured image, Birg Bird’s guest appearance on Saturday Night Live. You can watch the video at the Huffington Post.
++ I created the graphic above with data provided by CPS on their Appropriate Request & Justification page and their Rural Stations page.