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:
- Alabama B. 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.
- Colorado B. 1239 (2019) created a $6 million grant for the promotion of an accurate count in the census, with a focus on communities that have been historically underrepresented. School districts were eligible to apply for these grants and recipients of grants could choose to award their grant dollars to school districts. For example, the Englewood School District was awarded $4,500 for outreach efforts.
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.