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High Stakes for Schools If 2020 Census Undercounts Latino Families

By Corey Mitchell — November 21, 2019 5 min read
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Language barriers.

Distrust of government.

Fear of immigration enforcement.

For communities with significant numbers of Latino and immigrant residents, the barriers to an accurate 2020 Census count are high—and so are the stakes for their schools.

The census count has grave implications for school funding for the next decade: Undercounts could put districts at risk of losing hundreds of millions of dollars for early-childhood education, high-poverty-area schools, special education, foster-care funding, and child-care support for low-income families.

Nearly 40 states are likely to miss out on federal funds for programs serving families and children because of an undercount of Latino residents, according to a report released in earlier this year from Child Trends, a Bethesda, Md.-based nonpartisan research organization.

Texas and Florida, two states with significant Latino and immigrant populations, stand to lose nearly $480 million combined with just a 3 percent undercount, according to the Child Trends report—and educators and students in those states are concerned and taking steps to prevent undercounts.

In the U.S.-Mexico border town of El Paso, Texas, for example, students at Americas High School and their advisers are trying to overcome public fear in their efforts to educate residents about the census.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., home to the Mar-a-Lago Club, President Donald Trump’s primary residence, the school district will use geographic-information-system mapping tools to help principals in each of its 180 schools pinpoint neighborhoods with historically low census participation.

In California, the Los Angeles County Office of Education launched a $2 million campaign to help ensure more accurate counts in historically undercounted communities. As part of the plan, the office will give nearly 1,000 schools about $2,000 each for outreach efforts to connect with students and families.

“For Latinos, we know that … the most trusted messengers are teachers and people who speak for children,” said Lizette Escobedo, the census director for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. “So we remind them of the very important role that they play in this work.”

More than 1 in 4 children younger than 5 in the United States are Hispanic, and while many of the children are U.S. citizens, they may live in mixed-status homes with family members who are naturalized citizens or undocumented immigrants.

“There’s still fear among those family members about responding to the Census,” said Dana Thompson, a Child Trends researcher.

Citizenship Conundrum

A report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that, in 2017, about 72 percent of all Californians belonged to one or more groups that the census has historically undercounted—including young children, blacks, Latinos, and renters.

Across the country, the biggest hurdle to census participation this decennial may be the failed effort by the Trump administration to include a question about residents’ citizenship on the 2020 Census. In June, a divided U.S. Supreme Court refused to uphold the plan, but experts fear the damage is already done and the 2020 count will come up short.

Under federal law, the bureau cannot share census responses that identify individuals to federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for decades.

But ramped-up immigration enforcement and anti-immigrant rhetoric and violence have spread fear for residents who want to avoid the possibility of contact with immigration officials. The Census Bureau hopes that most households will fill out the census online, on paper, or by phone before the bureau starts sending out workers to knock on doors.

At Americas High, which is part of the Socorro Independent schools, Danina Castro and Myah Gonzalez, both 15, are leading efforts to focus on two census tracts near campus where less than 70 percent of households mailed back their 2010 census questionnaire.

In addition to language and cultural barriers, the students and their advisers are facing another barrier: fear.

In August, a gunman, who police say targeted Mexicans, opened fire in a Walmart in the city and killed 22 people. He had posted an online statement with strong anti-immigrant themes shortly before the shooting.

The Walmart is less than 10 miles from Americas High.

“Because of the shooting, it makes it really difficult for us to go out there and tell the people that it’s safe to do this, that they can trust us,” Castro said.

Building Trust

As the Trump administration threatened to ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants, the Los Angeles Unified schools pledged to protect the rights and privacy of students who don’t have legal immigration status.

But the assurance that schools would be a safe zone took a hit in 2017 when federal agents detained an undocumented father after he took his daughter to school in Los Angeles.

The school system hopes that what began as a know-your-rights campaign for immigrants will now evolve into an operation that can get more people to complete the census, said Antonio Plascencia Jr., the district’s director of civic engagement.

The 675,000-student district will put up posters on each campus to alert parents and students of the upcoming census. When the count begins, residents will be able to use the district’s school-based parent- and community-engagement centers to access Wi-Fi to complete the census online.

The district will also broadcast public service announcements in six languages—Armenian, English, Farsi, Mandarin, Spanish, and Tagalog—to encourage census participation and share it on social-media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Across the country in Palm Beach County, principals are using the mapping technology at presentations for parent-engagement nights, family meetings, and other school events to highlight low-count areas. The Florida district will also rely on lesson plans to educate students about the census and its importance, with the hope that they convey the information to people in their homes.

Roughly 1 in 4 Palm Beach County residents were born outside the United States, and the district serves children of seasonal farmworker families who migrate there to find work in the sugar-cane industry.

“I hope in my heart that parents, families, and children trust schools and the information that they get there and rely on it,” said Dana Zorovich-Godek, the administrative director of special projects in the Palm Beach schools and a co-chair of the district’s complete-count committee.

“It’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as Districts, Students Take Steps to Prevent Census Undercount of Latino Families

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