2020 U.S. Census critical to school funding

On Board Online • February 3, 2020

By Paul Heiser
Senior Research Analyst

Beginning April 1, 2020, the federal government begins a process that occurs only once every 10 years: counting (or attempting to) every person living in the U.S. and collecting demographic data from them.

The census has significant implications for public schools. The data help determine how billions of federal education dollars are distributed, since funding formulas rely heavily on population and poverty levels.

A new NYSSBA report, titled "Stand Up and Be Counted," details why an accurate census count is integral to ensuring that schools receive the funding they are entitled to, explores key factors that impact how populations are counted and what school boards in New York can do to ensure an accurate count in their communities.

In his proposed 2021 state budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed spending $10 million for a Census Council. , , the council will host conferences across the state on the importance of a complete count and will help coordinate outreach efforts.

Why is the census important to schools?

States with the greatest number of people and the highest concentrations of poverty receive proportionally greater amounts of federal aid than other states. If membership in such groups is not accurately represented in the census, states will have a harder time meeting the needs that exist in their communities.

Census data also impact public education indirectly by determining how many seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives. Greater congressional representation can help states secure additional education funding because of their increased influence. New York lost two congressional seats after the 2010 Census. In 2020, a mere 0.6% undercount could cost New York two more seats.

Forms of federal funding tied to the census

In 2019 the U.S. Department of Education provided New York an estimated $2.6 billion for elementary and secondary schools. That total included about $1.2 billion in Title I funding, which is targeted toward economically disadvantaged students and represents the single largest K-12 funding stream in the federal budget.

Total funding also included more than $860 million in special education funding. New York also received about $783 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 2018 fiscal year for the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or low-cost meals to disadvantaged children.

Census data also impact programs that improve the health and well-being of children, which bolsters their ability to learn. This includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

Factors impacting the accuracy of the census

Since federal education funding is determined largely by census data, an accurate count is necessary to ensure adequate levels of aid. Several factors threaten the integrity of the data.

One is undercounts - particularly among children and immigrants. In the 2010 Census, children aged 0-17 were undercounted by an estimated 1.267 million - the worst undercount since 1950, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The foundation uses births, deaths and net international migration (that is, the difference between immigration and emigration) to calculate the expected population. The greatest undercounts were for children aged 0-4, who were undercounted by nearly 1 million.

"Researchers have long believed that young children are often missed in the census because their living arrangements are complex and adults aren't always sure whether to include the children living with them on census forms," according to the Casey Foundation. "It can also be harder to count children living in communities with many multi-unit buildings."

The Casey Foundation warns that the 2020 census could undercount children by 1.5 million. In addition to the current challenges that lead to undercounts, the 2020 census will be conducted to a large extent online, potentially omitting those without access to technology or who have difficulty using the system.

No question on citizenship

School districts with large numbers of undocumented immigrants - those residing in the U.S. without the proper legal documentation - tend to be at greater risk of census undercounts. Undocumented immigrants may avoid participating in the census for fear that federal immigration authorities may separate them from their families or deport them.

The Trump administration sought to add a question about citizenship to the census, but was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said the administration’s rationale for adding the question “appears to have been contrived.”

Despite speculation that the administration would find a way to ask about citizenship despite the court ruling, "There is no citizenship question in the 2020 Census," according Tim Olson, the Associate Director for Field Operations at the Census Bureau. However, a citizenship question is included in the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, a separate survey that is sent out every year to a few million households. Olson's remarks were reported by a Washington, D.C. CBS affiliate, WUSA9, on Jan. 14.

Among organizations seeking to persuade all residents to participate in the census is the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Make the Road New York /Se Hace Camino Nueva York, an immigrant rights organization based in New York City that was one of the dozens of groups that successfully sued the Trump administration over the citizenship question.

What can school boards do?

There are a number of ways school boards can increase awareness and participation in the census:

  • Spread information about the census through social media platforms and districtwide newsletters. Messages about the importance of the census can be incorporated into virtually every activity within the school district, such as winter and spring recitals, sporting events and so on.
  • Declare April a district-wide "Census Month." Information about the census can be included in all district-wide communications, including information distributed to students and families, the district website, school board meetings and signs/electronic billboards on school property.
  • Add Census 2020 to every board meeting agenda until the process ends in December 2020.
  • Partner with local parent-teacher associations to stress the importance of the census. Information can be distributed at dinners, book drives and other events.
  • Seek appointment to "complete count committees" in their community. These are volunteer committees that may be established by local governments and community groups to design and implement census awareness campaigns and motivate residents.
  • Incorporate census information in civics education lessons. Also, the Census Bureau has "Statistics in Schools" curricular materials for all grade levels that relate census data to real-world issues.

School boards could specifically direct the superintendent to include educational activities for students and families on the importance of filling out the census. This directive could be done via a policy or resolution.

"If the board wanted instruction on the census to be an ongoing commitment, then a policy would be the better route," said Jessica Goldstein, NYSSBA's deputy director of policy services. "If the board didn't want these activities to take up instructional time in the intervening years, then a resolution would be preferable."

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