An inaccurate census count jeopardizes educational opportunities

An inaccurate census count jeopardizes educational opportunities
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The profound mission of public schools to ensure that all children have access to education is extraordinary not only as a bedrock principle of American society, but more importantly for its far-reaching positive impact on the lives of children.

When it comes to the fundamental right to access education, it doesn’t matter how children got here. Whether they were born in the United States or arrived with parents or without, with documents or without, seeking political asylum or pursuing economic opportunity — the inviolate duty of public schools to educate all children in our country remains steadfast and essential. Indeed, counting every child and family is essential in serving them.

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The ability of public schools to carry out their mission is severely undermined when the federal government undertakes measures such as the inclusion of a question on citizenship in the Decennial Census, which U.S. Census Bureau and survey experts predict will undercount the number of children and families our schools serve.

The Census Bureau projects conservatively that the inclusion of a citizenship question on the census will lead to an estimated 5.8 percent decline in the number of noncitizen responses. Some independent researchers anticipate the decline would be much higher, with nearly one in 10 households and 45 million people “at risk for not being counted.”  

The projected decline is understandable. Families with undocumented family members might avoid being counted by the census for fear that the collected data would lead to federal enforcement actions against them, such as family separations or deportation. That is why including a question on citizenship in the census is of great concern to school board members and families with students in public schools across the country, and why the National School Boards Association filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court urging the justices to review the shortsighted decision by the secretary of Commerce to alter the Decennial Census.

An accurate census count is critical to the myriad of federal programs that fund essential state and local education programs, particularly to those schools and children with the most critical need. Programs such as the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free meals to children, Title I grants to even the playing educational field for children from low-income families, and special education grants to states to help meet the needs of educational services to children with disabilities are but a few that rely on demographic data obtained through the census.

Other programs, such as Head Start, which helps prepare children in poverty under age 5 to be ready for school also rely on federal funds distributed to states based on information gathered by the census. In turn, state and local officials rely on census data feeding in federal initiatives such as the School District Review Program to inform local education decisions regarding budgetary needs, attendance zones and high-need student populations.

In short, an undercount means less or no federal resources for schools and for students and families who need them most.

When we consider that nearly 6 million children live with an undocumented family member (not counting undocumented children themselves), the magnitude of the potential impact of an undercount is breathtaking. Ironically, an unintended outcome of the inclusion of a question on citizenship could be its adverse impact on the more than 50 million students attending public schools. That is because the resulting loss of much-needed federal funding would result in the elimination of school programs that benefit all children, particularly those from low-income and special-needs families.  

Our schools and children deserve a census process that is accurate, fair and free from needless obstacles. That means counting every person in our great nation: native- and foreign-born alike; newly-arrived or not; those seeking asylum and those seeking economic opportunity; those with visas and those without. We can do better for our kids — and we should.

Thomas J. Gentzel is executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association, which advocates for equity and excellence in public education through school board leadership. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_NSBA.