Equity & Diversity

Counting Lesson: Schools Join Census Outreach

By Lynn Schnaiberg — May 12, 1999 8 min read

The U.S. Census Bureau is tapping the nation’s schools to get its message out: “Census 2000. This is your future. Don’t leave it blank.”

Next spring, households across America will receive forms asking residents to take part in the decennial population tally that seeks to determine how many people live in the United States, who they are, where they live, and how they live.

But the bureau and civil rights advocacy groups already have begun turning to schools to reach out to communities that are less likely to respond to the federal government’s call for information, such as neighborhoods that serve as ports of entry for newly arrived immigrants.

In what many observers are calling the bureau’s largest school outreach program ever, tens of thousands of schools nationwide are being asked to talk up participation in the U.S. Census in their communities. The bureau is encouraging teachers to use its free K-12 “Making Sense of Census 2000" curricula in their classrooms.

Doling Out Aid
The following is a sampling of federal programs that use U.S. Census data on poverty and/or population to funnel aid to states and school districts. Aid amounts are for fiscal 1999:

Aid Amount

Title 1 Grants to districts $7.7 billion
Head Start 4.7 billion
Special education grants to states 4.3 billion
Class-size reduction 1.2 billion
Vocational education basic grants 1.0 billion
Goals 2000 state grants 461.0 million
Technology-literacy challenge fund 425.0 million
Safe-and drug-free-schools state grants 441.0 million
Innovative education state grants 375.0 million
Grants for educating preschool
children with disabilities
374.0 million
Grants for early-intervention programs for children with disabilities from birth through age 2 370.0 million
Adult education state grants 365.0 million
Title 1 Even Start 135.0 million
Education for homeless children and youths 28.8 million
SOURCES: U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

Some big-city districts, including Los Angeles and Dallas, have started gearing up on their own for the 2000 census.

At stake, educators say, are billions of dollars in federal aid--not to mention accurate political representation and influence for communities at the state and national levels. In addition, census data help districts plan for the future, such as deciding where to build schools and run bus routes.

Although people under age 18 made up an estimated 26 percent of the U.S. population in 1990, slightly more than half of the 4 million people missed in the census that year were in that age group.

The children included in what is known as the “undercount” tend to come from minority families who are poor, highly mobile, and immigrant--precisely the children often found in urban districts, said Jeffrey A. Simering, the director of legislation for the Council of the Great City Schools, based in Washington.

“There’s a lot at stake with the census,” Mr. Simering said. “And people in schools are realizing that more and more.”

Getting Schools on Board

The Census Bureau is distributing information on its census curricula to teachers in 43,000 public and private schools--or roughly 40 percent of the nation’s more than 109,000 schools--targeted in areas with low census-response rates. Census officials say administrators in the remaining 60 percent of schools are expected to receive basic program information in the fall, though Congress is considering a bill that would expand the bureau’s more comprehensive outreach to all K-12 schools.

Teachers who respond to the bureau’s business-reply cards will receive a free teaching guide and lessons geared toward grades K-4, 5-8, or 9-12. Topics range from exploring the concept of community and learning basic map skills at the lower grades to working with statistical models in the higher grades--all intended to drive home the message that census participation is vital. The materials, developed by Scholastic Inc. to augment classwork in mathematics, geography, and social studies, are also available on the World Wide Web at www.census.gov/dmd/www/sch1.htm/.

As the bureau’s official “census day"--April 1, 2000--nears, participating schools will receive take-home activities for students to work on with their parents. Principals will be sent kits that include reproducible letters and guides--in multiple languages--explaining the importance of the census to teachers and parents.

Numerous national education groups have pledged to help the bureau’s school outreach efforts. Late last month, the 2.4 million-member National Education Association joined the roster and endorsed the federal agency’s school program, which census officials said should help the bureau’s efforts to recruit teachers and parents to go door to door in neighborhoods as census-takers.

Using easily recognizable and trusted individuals in these temporary jobs is key, said Luisa Ollague, a census-outreach coordinator for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or maldef, an advocacy group based in Los Angeles. Though individual responses to census questions are confidential, in many immigrant and minority communities, Ms. Ollague said, distrust of the government looms large and turning over personal information is seen as a risky proposition.

“That’s why teachers are one of the most important conduits for us,” Ms. Ollague said. “Especially in immigrant communities, it’s ‘Ask the teacher.’ And the teacher becomes a social worker in a lot of those communities.”

Quelling Fears

As a group, the nation’s booming Hispanic community ranked second in the proportion of minority residents missed in the 1990 census. More than 12 percent of American Indians living on reservations, 5 percent of Hispanics, 4.4 percent of African-Americans, and 2.3 percent of Asians and Pacific Islanders were not counted that year. Less than 1 percent of whites went uncounted.

MALDEF points to such numbers as the reason for its largest national census-outreach campaign to date.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, nearly 70 percent of the roughly 700,000 students are Hispanic. Last fall, the nation’s second-largest district started organizing its own “complete count” committee for the 2000 census.

Late last month, the school board approved a resolution calling on employees, parents, students, and residents to fill out census forms and to encourage maximum participation.

Joan Paton Acosta, a government-relations official for the district, said that 1990 “was devastating for California.” In Los Angeles alone, an estimated 52,245 children were missed in the 1990 census, according to the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund.

In an attempt to avoid such undercounting, the district plans to distribute the Census Bureau’s teaching kits to elementary classrooms districtwide, as well as to each middle and high school homeroom teacher, with a message from the superintendent asking teachers to use the lessons.

The district has sent fliers about the census to its 60,000 employees, tacked onto paychecks information about temporary census-enumerator jobs, and issued a call for parents to participate. The district has taken pains in parent newsletters to quell fears by noting that no other government agency has access to personal or family information gathered: “not the [Internal Revenue Service], not the [Immigration and Naturalization Service], not law enforcement, welfare agencies, or the courts.”

Politics Loom

An undercount, educators say, exacerbates problems such as crowded schools and tight budgets.

“An undercount for our district is absolutely crippling,” said Robby Collins, a legislative consultant for the Dallas Independent School District.

The 160,000-student district, where minority students make up 91 percent of total enrollment, has started organizing for the 2000 count and plans to use the bureau’s teaching materials. Other plans include setting up census committees at every school, establishing a census telephone hot line to answer questions, and having students fill out mock census forms before the real thing arrives in mailboxes around March of next year.

“Accurate census data is essential to good planning for a school district,” Mr. Collins said. “This is a big deal to us.”

Part of what makes the census a big deal is politics.

Census population counts help determine political representation in statehouses and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

After the 1990 census showed shifting population from the city of Dallas to surrounding suburbs--which Mr. Collins attributes in part to a “grossly undercounted” city population--state legislative districts in Texas were redrawn.

As a result, Mr. Collins said, the Dallas schools lost influence over four state lawmakers who, before the redistricting, counted the lion’s share of their precincts within the school district’s borders.

“We had to really rethink the whole state political strategy for this school system,” he said.

The political and legal battles over how to best improve the accuracy of the 2000 census remain fierce.

Congressional Democrats maintain that the best way to correct for the millions of Americans missed in the 1990 census is to use statistical sampling. That means a sample of households taken after the official head count would be used to project how many people were overlooked and then adjust the census data accordingly.

Political analysts generally believe that such a process would boost population figures in areas that tend to vote Democratic.

Republicans contend that sampling would violate the constitutional requirement for “actual enumeration” of all Americans and that the methods used would be subject to inaccuracy and possible manipulation. In a January decision, the U.S. Supreme Court skirted the constitutional issue but ruled that a federal statute forbids the use of sampling to apportion congressional seats.

But the court left open the question of whether sampling may be used for other purposes, such as deciding who receives certain federal aid. That debate is expected to continue over the coming months and could affect how much money is allotted for the Census Bureau’s school outreach.

“As the 2000 census gets closer, this all comes up higher on the radar screen,” Mr. Simering of the Council of the Great City Schools said. “And we’ll be watching.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 1999 edition of Education Week as Counting Lesson: Schools Join Census Outreach


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