When Mitt Romney said he’d reduce the federal budget deficit in last Wednesday’s debate, PBS was one of only two programs he mentioned cutting by name.  Romney has gone after PBS before, touting its elimination as a “major” potential savings for the American people.  There’s an annual $445 million congressional subsidy to public broadcasting that might seem to support Romney’s claim—until you realize that it represents approximately one hundredth of one percent of the entire federal budget.

To put it in perspective: $445 million only fifty percent more than what the military spends on marching bands. It is less than half of what the US Senate spends each year to administer itself.  For the cost of just the AIG portion of the bailout, America could have subsidized PBS at current levels without allocating another cent until the year 2164.  $445 million is a lot to ordinary people, but in the world of deficit reduction, which is what Romney was being asked about, it is an afterthought.

So why does Romney speak as if Big Bird were one of the top two obstacles to national solvency?  The reason is simple: he hopes to score a few easy political points.

By eliminating funding to PBS, Romney and the Republicans could indeed win some support from radical conservatives, but tens of millions of Americans will lose out, especially poor children struggling to get access to a good education.  PBS isn’t just NewsHour and Antiques RoadShow.  Ninety-five percent of PBS stations across America provide educational programming to their communities.

The local PBS station in Rochester, New York, produces Homework Hotline, which provides direct help to a million struggling students every week.  Zeroing out federal PBS money would take Homework Hotline and other locally created educational shows off the air.  Denying educational help to millions of kids, many in areas too remote or too poor to have adequate schools, is too great a price to pay for a few election season partisan gains.

Romney’s argument is that he is eliminating federal budget expenses that aren’t essential enough to justify “borrowing money from China to pay for.”  Even by such an alarmist standard, using the already built and paid-for public broadcasting network to help ensure that the next generation will be educated enough to compete with China and other global rivals is an excellent, efficient use of public funds.  And if Romney doesn’t agree, the American people overwhelmingly do.

PBS is one of the most widely used and highly valued services the government provides.  Over 170 million Americans connect with public broadcasting every single month.  For years, the Roper poll has ranked PBS as the most trusted institution in America, more trusted than Congress, the military, and even the criminal justice system.  It has been repeatedly ranked second only to military spending as the “best possible use of tax dollars.”  In 2011, the independent polling firm Hart Research/American Viewpoint found that 69 percent of Americans were against cutting federal money for PBS.

And for decades, Americans have been voting for PBS with their wallets, by giving billions of their own dollars in small, individual donations.

PBS may be less important to families like the Romneys, who are wealthy enough to secure their own access to culture and education. But for millions of middle and low-income, often minority families, PBS’s small price tag provides priceless returns.  In rural and poor areas, PBS is often the only place where viewers can find arts and culture programming, or see shows that give voice to local or regional issues.

Taking away one of America’s most economically efficient and widely used educational and cultural resources is a bad deal for the American people.  And using America’s most trusted institution as a political football at a time when the nation is faced with many actual threats to its economic and social well-being is deeply irresponsible.  The choice is not between Big Bird and economic ruin, but between a political conversation that focuses on real issues and one that seeks to divide and mislead.

Read Peter Van Buren’s take on Six Critical Foreign Policy Questions That Won’t Be Raised in the Presidential Debates.