As school board members and education leaders, we all agree that every student counts. That mantra will be put to the test this month as invitations to complete the 2020 U.S. Census begin arriving in mailboxes. While U.S. Census Bureau and California officials will ramp up their outreach efforts in the coming weeks, we also play a key role in making sure school-aged children are not forgotten. Traditionally, some of our youngest citizens have not been counted.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the census will not include a question about the status of a person’s citizenship. This is an important development worthy of repeating to our communities, especially as California’s schools serve an estimated 750,000 students who live with at least one undocumented parent. That’s one in eight of the state’s students. Therefore, it is imperative that we, as public school leaders, help alleviate concerns among our parents and communities by reassuring them that census information may not be used in a punitive manner or shared with law enforcement agencies.
Media attention last year on the possible inclusion of a citizenship question sparked understandable fear in many of our immigrant communities. An undercount may have drastic ramifications, especially in a state like ours, with a high share of people who historically have been hard to count (California has the top 10 hardest to count counties in the country, according to state census officials). Many education leaders, researchers and advocates predicted the inclusion of a citizenship question would severely depress response rates, which in turn would affect the allocation of billions of dollars in federal education funding.
Specifically, a 2018 Public Policy Institute of California report warned that the state remains vulnerable to an undercount, which could further jeopardize federal funding for school districts throughout the state, including Title I grants and special education. And a lot is on the line for a state that has seen decades of underfunding for its public schools: California receives more than $7 billion in federal aid to support our schools, and this is especially important for closing opportunity gaps at schools with a high percentage of low-income children and schools with special education programs. These critical funds support programs for school nutrition, after-school, special education, English learners, Native American students, farmworkers, youth experiencing homeless and Head Start.
But this issue is not just about money. Effective messaging about the facts and importance of the 2020 census also fosters strong relationships between public schools and the diverse students, parents and communities they serve. Evidence shows that compared with other government services, many immigrant and refugee families have a greater trust in the public education system. This is a factor that we cannot take for granted and must build on as we continue to strive to more equitably serve all students.
A good starting place for these vital communications is the California Census Communication Toolkit for Schools, which includes a sample parent letter, social media posts and talking points to engage your local communities. You can find this resource and other valuable information at https://census.ca.gov/resource/school/.
Remember, we, as elected public school leaders, are trusted messengers and our outreach efforts can help ensure every child is counted in the 2020 census.