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The 2020 Census could make or break your public school. Here’s why

An accurate census is key to schools getting the funding they need to serve every child who walks through their doors.
Published: 05/13/2019

It’s the biggest event of the summer. More than $800 billion are on the line. No, it’s not the biggest lottery jackpot ever. It’s the 2020 census.

The census aims to count every person living in the United States and collect their demographic data. This information guides all kinds of important decisions, including how many congressional representatives each state gets, and how state and local governments spend resources.

Those spending decisions include school funding. Census data is the foundation for allocation of billions of dollars of federal education aid to states and localities using formulas that factor in population and poverty levels.

An accurate census is key to schools getting the funding they need to serve every child who walks through their doors. But that accuracy is now imperiled after the Trump administration hastily added a question about citizenship.

We only have one shot every 10 years to get the census right. Students are counting on us to get the job done. Here’s what you need to know, and how you can help:

Why is the census so critical to public schools?

Census data determines the distribution of:

  • More than $14 billion in Title I grants that help schools serve more than 24 million students from low-income families;
  • $11.3 billion in special education grants to the states;
  • About $13.6 billion for the National School Lunch Program;
  • Plus funds for the Head Start preschool program and grants to improve teacher quality.

Data from census.gov and fas.org reflects 2015 distributions.

All told, more than 130 critical government programs serving primarily low-income people use census data to allocate more than $675 billion, research shows.  This includes the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which keeps millions of families out of poverty and has lasting benefits for children’s health and academic success.

If some groups aren’t accurately represented in the census, it will be more difficult for their states to cover the needs that exist in their communities. The schools their children attend will be underfunded, and the resulting lack of resources can negatively affect all students in the school.

Why does the citizenship question threaten the accuracy of the census?

Experts have long realized that including a citizenship question lowers the response rate.

Some immigrants, regardless of their legal status, might be afraid to participate in the census. It results in the undercounting of communities of color, particularly Hispanic households.

Terri Ann Lowenthal was the staff director of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population from 1987 to 1994, and she now advises several human and civil rights groups fighting for a fair census. Lowenthal says given Trump’s harsh immigration policies, it is “understandable that many immigrants are fearful that this administration might circumvent the law and get its hands on census data and use it to harm people, or deport people.”

How would an inaccurate census count negatively affect public schools?

Undercounting communities of color will mean the public schools serving those communities will not receive adequate resources.

Young children are already at high risk of not being counted, research shows.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation notes that the 2010 census “had the worst undercount since 1950, with nearly 5 percent of children under age 5—about 1 million kids—not counted.”

The problem would only be compounded in 2020 by a citizenship question that discourages participation.

“Job one is to do everything we can to support an accurate census,” says NEA Senior Counsel Emma Leheny. “It’s the first step in understanding the needs of the next generation of school-age children.”

 Who is fighting for the integrity of the 2020 census?

Several states, including California and New York, are suing the Trump Administration over its decision to include the citizenship question.

A case called Department of Commerce v. State of New York was fast-tracked to the U.S. Supreme Court, whose nine justices will determine whether the citizenship question is constitutional or not. The National Education Association has signed onto the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights amicus brief along with 175 other grassroots, advocacy, labor, legal services, education, and faith-based organizations.

Oral arguments were heard on April 23. The court is expected to make its determination before the end of June so that census forms can be prepared.

What can I do to help?

Talk to your family, coworkers, and friends about what is at stake in the census. Use the hashtag #CountMeIn when you post on social media about why you oppose the inclusion of the citizenship question.

Sign the pledge and find out more ways to get involved at CensusCounts.org.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.