The U.S. Census Bureau reported in March a significant undercount of Latinos in the 2020 census data, an outcome with wide-ranging implications for K-12 education, experts and community leaders say.
The population count that happens every 10 years to determine the number of seats each state gets in the U.S. House of Representatives historically undercounts certain demographic groups including Latinos. But the 2020 undercount of 4.9 percent for Latinos was about three times greater than the undercount of 1.5 percent in 2010.
A number of factors led to the undercount, from logistical challenges of door-to-door counts during the pandemic, to an underfunding of the census program, and the Trump administration’s unsuccessful bid to add a citizenship question onto the census form. That last factor likely left some immigrants unwilling to participate in fear of data being used against them, said Gabriel R. Sanchez, a research fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
Latino students accounted for 27 percent of the U.S. public elementary and secondary student population as of 2018, and the Latino community was hit particularly hard financially as a result of the pandemic with higher than average job loss, small businesses going under, and a drop in paid work hours leading to a loss of health insurance, Sanchez said. Experts point to three big ways the Latino undercount complicates schools’ goals to serve these students:
Representative governance: Census data is used by state legislatures and in some cases independent commissions to draw lines of legislative districts and reapportion congressional seats. Thanks to the undercount, states and regions with large Latino populations likely now have legislative electoral districts that are larger than what the numbers say they are, said Arturo Vargas, the chief executive of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.
Arizona, for instance, was projected to pick up a congressional seat and it did not, said Vargas, who was a member of the U.S. Census Bureau’s national advisory committee on racial, ethnic, and other populations.
Similarly an undercount of Latinos within the total population count could mean drawing of K-12 school board electoral maps in a way that disadvantages Latinos’ opportunities to serve on the board and partake in the election process. This comes at a time when Latino leadership in education is needed to ensure the community’s needs are met by representatives with deep ties to the community, Vargas said.
Federal funding: Virtually every federal program that provides funding to states and localities uses census data in some way in its resource distribution, Vargas said. This means school districts with large Latino student populations will likely not get their fair share of resources because census data shows there are fewer students in the area than there actually are.
The irony is that undercounted populations such as Latinos were the exact demographic many of these federal funds were intended to serve, Vargas said.
In North Carolina, Latino students have been driving student enrollment numbers up for years, said Elaine Utin, executive director of LatinxEd, a nonprofit in North Carolina advocating for Latino students, families and educators. Yet schools with large Latino student populations in the state lacked adequate funding prior to the census count, and struggled to establish language resources and recruit and retain Latino educators, Utin said.
Policymaking: Whether it’s a school board member or an education-focused policymaker trying to make decisions to meet the needs of a constituency, census data plays a role in determining who is being served. With an undercount as high as the one reported for the 2020 census, Vargas said, policy decisions impacting Latino students and their classmates, such as where to direct resources will be off the mark since the numbers these decisions were based on are off. This is especially concerning, Vargas and others said, at a time when policy and decisionmakers have their hands full figuring out how to help students with complicated academic and social-emotional needs as a result of the pandemic.
With preparation work for the 2030 census already underway, Vargas and others hope lessons learned from this last count will be implemented in time to prevent the current situation.