It took less than 24 hours for LeVar Burton's reboot and expansion of Reading Rainbow to reach its $1 million goal, and the ticker is currently closing on $2 million. Obviously, there's a lot of people out there who're still very grateful for the public-television classic.
But of course the immutable natural laws that govern behavior on the Internet dictate that anything popular inevitably inspires a think-piece backlash. Leaping into the fray first: the Washington Post, with "You might want to reconsider that donation to the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter." It kicks off by announcing the program was cancelled in the first place because PBS and co-producers at WNED Buffalo "believed that the show was no longer the best way to teach kids reading skills."
This line of argument fundamentally misunderstands the point of Reading Rainbow, painting it as, frankly, kind of a luxury. That's B.S. The program wasn't about how to read, but rather why.
You get better at reading by reading. But kids need a reason. They need to be motivated. You know that old saying about leading horses to water? Well, you can throw out all the phonics and standardized tests and earnest speeches about the future you want, but what does a fourth grader care? People love LeVar Burton because he told them an amazing secret: reading is actually great! It's empowering, it's entertaining.
Likely more persuasive is the point that the new incarnation is being produced by RRKidz, LeVar Burton's technically for-profit enterprise (which has already produced a well-received tablet version of this product.) There will be a subscription fee. And yes, that may raise a few hackles:
If you're donating to Reading Rainbow because of the grandiose charity rhetoric Burton's employing on Kickstarter, you might want to look elsewhere — maybe the nonprofit Children's Literacy Initiative or the Washington, D.C.-based First Book, both of which get high grades from Charity Navigator. They might not have LeVar's nostalgia appeal, but there's no doubt who those charities serve.
It's sad that the American educational system is in such massive crisis that, apparently, we have to pick one approach to literacy, as though this were the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Pick the wrong one and America shrivels into dust and blows away and nobody ever learns to read again.
But it's also a little naive to act like that million dollars was raised at the expense of other programs. Most of the people who've enthusiastically forked over their hard-earned cash probably didn't wake up with $25 earmarked for the most deserving literacy initiative that came along. At lot of that money probably would've gone to Forever21 and Seamless Web. As for the for-profit approach, maybe that's just a safer prospect in these days of slashed budgets and reformers focused on test results. You don't begrudge textbook companies for making money, do you?
God knows people have thrown their money at dumber money-making experiments on crowdfunding sites. Burton has at least laid the foundations for putting the revamped program in low-income classrooms for free, and over the years he's shown a lot of dedication to this particular cause.
So here's an idea: Rather than considering this a zero-sum game, let's take this massively successful campaign as a reminder that these types of programs mean a lot. The Kickstarter has met its initial goal, so if you were going to donate, why not take some of that money and kick it to the programs named in the Washington Post article? But I'm just not sold on the idea that this is some foolish waste simply because Burton might end up turning a buck or two.
Look, I'm not an educator. I'm just some asshole on the Internet. Reading Rainbow probably isn't perfect, and LeVar Burton isn't literacy Jesus. But to me, it's worth at least a little cash on the hopes that when my kids are learning to read ten years from now, Reading Rainbow will be there to help my family out. If the Kickstarter campaign helps make the program more broadly accessible, that's even better. Do whatever you want with your money, but there are certainly dumber options out there.