Reading Rainbow‘s Pot Of Gold

May 30 2014 @ 2:21pm

On Wednesday, LeVar Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a digital version of Reading Rainbow. It surpassed its $1 million goal in less than a day:

The original fundraising target was to raise $1 million by July 2nd, and is sweetened with many incentives (or “perks”) to donate, including meet-and-greet appearances, private dinner with Burton, and even a once-in-a-lifetime chance to wear the actual chrome visor of Geordi La Forge, the blind character that Burton played in Star Trek: the Next Generation. Not only has the goal been surpassed on the first day, but at the time of this article’s publication, the campaign has more than doubled its donations, steadily creeping towards the $2.5-million mark; according to the Kickstarter page, new stretch goals are to be added soon.

But Caitlin Dewey isn’t celebrating:

[W]hen 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?” Unfortunately, it’s unclear how the new, digital Reading Rainbow will address that disparity — if it chooses to at all.

The current Reading Rainbow app, which the Kickstarter claims it will expand on, is built on the foundations of the classic show: book read-alongs, “video field trips” — the stuff that worked wonders in the ’80s, and requires lots of bandwidth in the present day. In fact, while the Kickstarter promises to deliver more books to low-income kids, there are already some hints that it’s not totally up to speed with those same kids’ digital realities. It’s well-documented fact, for instance, that low-income households are disproportionately more likely to access the Internet by cellphone. And yet Reading Rainbow wants to put its app on desktop computers first — which requires both computer ownership and high-speed Internet access. …

All this adds up to a criticism that has been levied at high-profile Kickstarter campaigns before: Crowdfunding is theoretically supposed to bolster charities, start-ups, independent artists, small-business owners and other projects that actually need the financial support of the masses to succeed. It’s not supposed to be co-opted by companies with profit motives and private investors of their own … which, despite Burton’s charisma, is exactly what the Rainbow reboot is.

Kelly Faircloth pushes back:

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. … 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?