Counting All Kids: How the Census Impacts Education

Early LearningK-12

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As state education leaders begin thinking about rebuilding after school shutdowns and the economic consequences of COVID-19, some state leaders are devoting attention to a policy area that is unlikely to appear in daily headlines:  The 2020 census.

The census  directly influences education, as census counts impact the federal funds allocated for educational programs. Census data determines funding for special education, Head Start, school nutrition, after-school programming and classroom technology, as well as maternal and child health programs.

Given the importance of these programs for children’s well-being, many policymakers are focused on ensuring census counts — particularly the count of young children — are accurate. Children under age 5 are the age group  most likely to be underrepresented in the census, and children ages 5-9 are the second most undercounted group.  Studies estimate that the 2010 census missed between 1 million  and  2 million young children, or 5% to 10% of children under age 5. The miscount cost states collectively over $550 million a year for just five programs focused on young children.

Because of the census’ 10-year cycle, undercounting children in the 2020 census would impact communities for the next decade, or most of a child’s schooling career.  The risk of undercounting is not evenly distributed across communities, as children are more likely to be undercounted in communities of color, in multilingual families and when living with nonrelatives or relatives other than their biological parents. The costs of being missed in the census are also uneven, as many programs apportioned by the census are designed to help the same communities that tend to be underrepresented, such as English learners through English language acquisition grants.

The potential for underfunding may be increasingly concerning for state leaders, given the possibility of  state budget cuts as a result of the current economic downturn and the likelihood of increased student needs following school closures. State policy and leadership can consider helping target populations historically undercounted by the census, which may ultimately lead to higher, more accurate, counts for states.

The following examples of statewide policy focus on the role schools and education leaders can play in promoting census participation:

    • AlabamaB. 199  (2019) created a $1 million Census Grant Program to be spent, in coordination with the state department of education, to assist community outreach efforts designed to encourage Alabama residents to complete the census.  Several schools received grants: Alabama Community College System, Aliceville Elementary School and Auburn University.
    • California leaders have invested over $7 million in census outreach through education, including through county offices, curriculum and higher education. The California Department of Education developed a school-based outreach guidebook and has recently reported sharing census materials along with food delivery during school closures.
    • Washington state’s Complete Count Commission includes the superintendent of public instruction. In addition, to promote participation, B. 1109 (2019) allocates funds for a census campaign that includes census materials in multiple languages.

States can view their current census response rates here and resources specific to the census and schools here. It is important to note that the COVID-19 crisis has interrupted some census field operations, though data collection continues. As a result, the census bureau has proposed extending the deadline to complete the 2020 census from July 31 to October 31. Visit the 2020 census website for updates and current information.

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Policy Director at Education Commission of the States |

As policy director, Tiffany contributes to a variety of policy issues. She brings more than a decade of experience working to improve teaching and learning, including work at the Tennessee Department of Education and as an advisor to education leaders while at TNTP. Tiffany began her career as a fifth grade teacher and is passionate about ensuring all students have access to an excellent education.

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Policy Researcher at Education Commission of the States

As a policy researcher, Emily works on answering information requests and collecting data related to state education policy. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Emily started pursuing her doctorate in public affairs and worked as a budget analyst at the Oregon Capitol. Emily earned her bachelor’s degree in economics from Willamette University and is currently working on her dissertation at the University of Colorado School of Public Affairs.

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