School & District Management Commentary

The Next Census Will Shape Children’s Lives. Let’s Make Sure We Count Right

By Gregg Behr — March 05, 2018 4 min read

These are—to put it mildly—uncertain times.

As we’ve seen repeatedly over the last year, laws and proposals can change overnight: A judge blocks the deportation of “dreamers"; the teacher tax deduction is eliminated, then doubled, then left as it was. For educators, students, and schools, upheaval is the new normal.

With so much vying for our attention, it’s tempting to overlook what’s predictable, what’s perennial, what follows a set pattern. Consider the census—perhaps the most reliable and least exciting of all civic events. In the United States, we’ve been counting our population every 10 years since 1790. In 2020, we’ll do it again. Most of us know the principal function of the census: It tells us who lives where and apportions U.S. House seats.

And yet it also does so much more than that. The census directs hundreds of billions of federal dollars to hospitals, infrastructure projects, and education each year, exerting unparalleled influence on students, educators, and schools.

A quick scan of line items determined by the count reveals just how important the census really is. Its data determine how much communities receive for special education grants, Title I grants, school lunches, and Head Start programs, just to name a few.

It affects students and educators in other ways, too—ways sometimes less direct but never less important. A community’s share of Section 8 housing vouchers, heating assistance funding, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, for example, all depend on census data.

In other words, the census keeps kids housed, fed, rested, and safe. In order for students to come to school ready to learn in 2020 and the decade beyond, an accurate count is crucial.

It won’t, however, be easy.

“Counting every person in the United States is a massive and complex undertaking even under the best conditions,” according to The Leadership Conference Education Fund. But “best conditions” these are not: Predicting potential underfunding, undercounting, and undermining, the Government Accountability Office has designated the 2020 census a high-risk endeavor—one that could fail vulnerable students and schools.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, says the bureau faces an “urgent” shortfall of more than $3 billion. Meanwhile, a hostile political environment threatens to curb participation and undercount whole communities. Early focus groups conducted by the bureau have revealed deep-seated fears about how the 2020 census will be used. Immigrant groups—whom studies show are already less likely to respond to surveys—are especially hesitant amid an atmosphere of xenophobia and heightened deportation fears.

The U.S. Justice Department’s proposal to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census only compounds the problem. First reported in December, the proposal was swiftly condemned by lawmakers, census-watchers, and editorial boards around the country as an attempt to undermine the census. Though the Census Bureau can’t share individual survey data for a full 72 years, it’s widely believed that including such a question would dramatically reduce response rates among undocumented migrants and their families. “It would completely pull the rug out from under efforts to have everyone participate in the census as the Constitution envisions,” census-watcher Terri Ann Lowenthal told The New York Times earlier this year.

Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, put it even more bluntly in an interview with ProPublica: “This is a recipe for sabotaging the census.”

The census keeps kids housed, fed, rested, and safe."

None of this bodes well for an accurate count—or the future well-being of students and their schools. Just as each person counted directly influences the amount of resources that his or her community receives, each person not counted saps opportunity, political capital, and precious education funding from those who need it most.

The stakes are too high for us to simply hope for the best. The 2020 census will shape our country—and our children’s lives—for a decade or more, and it’s up to every educator, parent, policymaker, and advocate to get involved. Here’s what you can do:

1. Engage in outreach efforts. The Census Project—a coalition of organizations working to ensure a fair and accurate count—compiles updates and information about 2020 census preparations. You can sign up for their mailing list and download their toolkit for getting involved. Additionally, CensusOutreach.org has created resources to help organizations quickly and easily engage their stakeholders.

2. Contact your representatives. Call, email, and write to your Congressional representatives to raise questions about how our nation might best achieve a fair, accurate, and fully funded census.

3. Involve teachers, students, and their families. It’s never too early to familiarize students and their families with the importance of what’s ahead. Schools and educators are trusted sources of information that can help ensure that every child is counted. Familiarize your students with census data and how they are used. You can also read statements from national unions, including the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, to learn more about every educator’s stake in an accurate count.

The 2020 census is two years away, and we have one chance to get it right. It’s on all of us to make our voices heard.

Our children and schools are counting on it.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as The 2020 Census: Every Child Counts


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