Actor Levar Burton of Roots and Star Trek: The Next Generation fame kicked off a Kickstarter campaign last week to raise funds and revive his Reading Rainbow literacy project for the Internet age. Already converted into an app, this campaign would expand Reading Rainbow into a Web property with special addendums specifically for teachers—all at a monthly subscription cost. The campaign has already received $3.4 million in donations. Accordingly, Burton has sent a new funding goal of $5 million.
After nearly 30 years on the air at PBS stations, Reading Rainbow was cancelled due to a lack of funds to continue the property, which was influenced by the shift of government grant distribution that valued teaching reading fundamentals over getting kids interested in books. Or, as The Washington Post put it, “When Reading Rainbow began in 1983, the big question was, “how do we get kids interested in reading?” By 2009, that question had become, “How do we teach kids to read, period?”
Adding another wonky ripple to this overtly altruistic endeavor is that this new incarnation of Reading Rainbow will not actually be free for everyone as the rhetoric announces, but rather will require most users and classrooms to pay a subscription fee. That money will go to Burton’s company, RRKidz, which is backed by a private firm. “The word ‘subscription’ isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Kickstarter campaign, and neither is the name of RRKidz,” Molly Hensley-Clancy points out on BuzzFeed. “The campaign borrows from the language of charities to present Reading Rainbow as a solution to the American education crisis.”
When it comes to teaching kids to read and encouraging bookish tendencies in a world of click-throughs and multiplayer first-person shooters, does it really matter how we combat the epic levels of illiteracy in the “modern” world?
Socio-economic status and race are two of the strongest determinants for literacy in Canada, according to ExcellenceinLiteracy.org. “People from poor families as well as the long-term unemployed, seniors, native people, prisoners, people with disabilities, and racial and cultural minorities all have higher rates of both illiteracy and poverty. Poverty has a direct link to illiteracy and vice versa. “(National Adult Literacy Database, Movement for Canadian Literacy, Literacy is for Life [Fact Sheet #9, Literacy and Poverty]).
“By 2031, more than 15 million Canadian adults—three million more than today—will have low literacy levels. The number of Canadian adults with low literacy levels will increase 25 per cent in the next two decades, creating a "literacy dilemma" if the problem isn't addressed immediately” (Canadian Council on Learning, The Future of Literacy in Canada's Largest Cities report, Sep 8, 2010).
“There’s something a little sad about seeing Reading Rainbow on Kickstarter,” writes Rachel Edidin on Wired.com. “At the same time, though, its success is a striking commentary on both the project’s continuing relevance—and the joint power of nostalgia and altruism.” In such a global illiteracy environment, contributing to Burton’s Kickstarter campaign may be one way the public can revived a nostalgic property and, fully-informed, be an important part of making reading fundamental for all socio-economic sectors. “God knows people have thrown their money at dumber money-making experiments on crowd-funding sites,” opines Kelly Faircloth on Jezebel. “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.”
Follow the Money
It does raise a question about crowd-sourcing as to “perk” fulfillment: if people are contributing to the costs of a major project, i.e. investing money like shareholders into something they believe in, when do they start demanding a monetary return on for-profit enterprises? Let’s just hope those Kickstarter contributors don’t think to look for the pot of gold at the end of the Reading Rainbow.