Reading Rainbow

Andy Matthews

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Reading Rainbow

If you had children who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, you probably remember the power that the television show “Reading Rainbow” had in teaching kids to read and fostering a love of reading in youths across the nation.

Now, the former show is teaching adults the power of free markets. Over the past week, it has become a perfect case for how government isn’t needed to make a good idea successful.

In case you missed it, “Reading Rainbow” host LeVar Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign last week in an effort to raise enough money — $1 million — to create a revamped, online version of the show that ran for more than 25 years on PBS before it was abruptly canceled in 2009. In the campaign’s first day, it met its initial goal, and it actually crossed the $2 million mark on day two.

By raising $2 million over two days from people eager to see the show return, “Reading Rainbow” debunked the common liberal view that good endeavors need the helping hand of government to succeed. Voluntary donors have not only supplied the funding to get the program off the ground, but have positioned it to be sustainable.

And Burton is demonstrating the kind of innovation that’s only possible through free markets, by bringing the show back in a format better suited for today’s youths. While the show’s publicly funded version failed to adapt to today’s internet and mobile age, the new “Reading Rainbow” will reach children where they are: on computers and mobile tablets and, if enough money is raised, on smartphones.

Unlike government-provided programs, which lack the incentives to innovate because their funding is guaranteed through force, privately funded efforts face competition, and thus have to constantly adapt and improve if they’re to survive.

As the New York Post’s editorial board put it, “Reading Rainbow” is returning “thanks to technological innovation and the free market.”

There is an undeniable demand for a new-and-improved “Reading Rainbow.” In the first week of the campaign, more than 75,000 individuals contributed to the project, with higher-level donors receiving various incentives in exchange for their gifts. Each of those people saw enough value in the product to back it voluntarily.

Beyond serving as an example of the benefits of free markets, the “Reading Rainbow” campaign also demonstrates how private groups and individuals can offer innovation in education. NPRI frequently discusses the benefits of school choice, and while that usually means bringing the private sector into the process through charter schools, homeschooling or education savings accounts, it also means allowing private companies that have quality educational products to provide them to public schools.

In the case of the new “Reading Rainbow,” Burton plans to not only have a web-based show, but also to provide materials to teachers and offer them to the country’s most needy schools free of charge. Even children who are stuck in failing public schools, as too many Nevada students are, will have a new chance to learn to read thanks to this new, private endeavor.

Liberals recognize this, too — and amazingly, they are now attacking Burton for his efforts.

Within hours of the campaign’s launch, the Washington Post slammed Burton for daring to create a business out of an abandoned program that clearly has a market strong enough to be resurrected without government handouts. How could a business fueled by a desire for profit teach a child to read? In the minds of some liberals, only bureaucrats can provide services to the neediest among us. How’d those high-minded bureaucrats at the VA work out?

We should commend LeVar Burton and the others working to bring “Reading Rainbow” back to American households. They saw a need and took the initiative to fill it without turning to our cash-strapped country to pay for it.

There’s much more to “Reading Rainbow” than a literary lesson. I hope adults are as willing to hear its message about the free market as children are its stories.

Thanks for reading and having a great weekend.

Andy Matthews
NPRI President

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