PBS Urged to Address Dire State of Education

Times Staff Writer

Despite its proud history of educational programming, ranging from “Sesame Street” for preschoolers to college-credit telecourses for adults, the Public Broadcasting Service was admonished at its annual convention to take an even more prominent academic role by championing educational reform.

Beyond the obvious societal reasons for doing so, former Proctor & Gamble chairman Owen B. Butler suggested in his keynote address, public television has a personal stake in helping to improve the nation’s schools.

The same people who are dropping out of high school--he put the rate at 4,000 a day nationwide--are also “dropping out of your potential audience,” said Butler, who now is chairman of the Committee for Economic Development, a private group of business executives and educators.


“I don’t think that any of those kids have the kind of intellect that makes them interested in public-television programming,” Butler said.

His speech Sunday at the Sheraton Harbor Island East Hotel here kicked off a four-day joint conference of PBS and the National Assn. of Public Television Stations.

Butler underscored the need for educational reform by citing statistics that he said came from a Chicago Sun Times study last year: “Over 50% of the first-grade students in Chicago could not recite their last name, could not tell red from blue, or circle from square. Their vocabulary is not that well developed. But I’ll bet you anything most of them could have told you the difference between crack and weed.”

Ironically, immediately following Butler’s speech, William McCarter, president and general manager of WTTW-TV, the major public television station in Chicago, did a little show-and-tell on two of the station’s local programs involving education: the Illinois Young Performers’ Competition, now in its fifth year, in which the station and Illinois Bell annually award $20,000 in scholarships in six performing-arts categories; and the Golden Apple Awards, now in its fourth year, which are presented each year to 10 outstanding Chicago-area teachers.

The public television executives got down to business of a more routine nature Monday, debating various options for restructuring the way national programs are funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The corporation, which distributes federal funds to noncommercial radio and television stations, is under a mandate from Congress to consider revising its funding procedures. About $40 million from CPB currently helps support such PBS series as “Frontline” and “American Playhouse.”