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Budget & Finance

Judge Orders Census Bureau to Keep Counting. Here’s Why That Matters for Schools

By Evie Blad — September 25, 2020 2 min read
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For schools, an accurate population count is tied to billions of dollars of federal aid. That’s why educational administrators may be interested in a decision to keep the 2020 Census going for another month.

That will give schools and community groups one last window to encourage families to fill out the form.

A federal judge on Friday ordered Trump administration officials to scrap plans to cut this year’s official count short, after internal U.S. Census Bureau communications warned that a truncated schedule combined with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to “a census that is of unacceptable quality.”

The Census Bureau first shifted its collection schedule in response to the virus by delaying the start of the nonresponse followup period—when workers visit homes that haven’t responded online or by mail. Officials later said they would end all data collection by Sept. 30, abbreviating the revised counting schedule by four weeks in an effort to meet statutory deadlines for assembling the population count by Dec. 31. A preliminary injunction by Judge Lucy H. Koh of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California means officials will have to keep counting until the original Oct. 31 deadline.

And that may be a big deal for schools because children, immigrants, and low-income families are considered “hard-to-count populations.” Districts rely on data about those demographic groups to qualify for billions of dollars in federal funding for programs like the National School Lunch Program, Title I, and Head Start.

“An undercount in any locality matters greatly,” Koh wrote. “Even a small undercount of a subset of the hard to count population would result in the loss of federal funding.”

The case was brought by the National Urban League and a group of local jurisdictions, including county and city governments and the Navajo Nation. Koh noted that an inaccurate census could have other harms: The data is used to determine political representation through redistricting, and local governments use it to determine where to direct resources.

Koh also barred the bureau from delivering data to the White House by a revised Dec. 31 deadline, months earlier than a previously discussed deadline of April.

Her order cites an internal email from U.S. Census Bureau Associate Director for Field Operations Tim Olson, who said it was “ludicrous to think we can complete 100% of the nation’s data collection earlier than 10/31. Any “thinking person” who believes the bureau could deliver final data to the White House by the end of the year “has either a mental deficiency or a political motivation,” he wrote.

Photo: Getty