Invest in census outreach for the sake of all kindergarteners was originally published in The Hill. You can read the op-ed here.
Across the county, parents have dropped off their 5-year-old children for their first day of school. Unbeknownst to these young minds, and perhaps their parents, the educational opportunities they enjoy between now and their sophomore year of high school will be profoundly shaped by the 2020 census.
Ten years ago, nearly 1 million of kindergarten-age children went uncounted in the 2010 census. Their right to a school lunch or extra support if they need one-on-one tutoring through special education was erased by the failure to pen their existence into a census form. And the Census Bureau is prepared for history to repeat itself.
President Trump’s citizenship question crusade raised the stakes for census workers determined to accurately document historically marginalized communities. And while many rightly focus on political consequences, population counts within counties are used for a lot more than allocating representatives in Congress; they’re equally important for dividing up federal money — including for schools.
Based on 10-year snapshots, census data determine local districts’ eligibility for federal money that fundamentally shapes educational opportunities available to the next generation of American leaders. The National Education Association estimates fully $40 billion in annual funding is at stake for public schools.
That figure includes $14 billion in Title 1 money for roughly 24 million children from low-income families; $11.3 billion in special education funding for states; and $13.6 billion for the National School Lunch Program.
The educational and nutritional value of these federal dollars make it all the more important to fully represent the youngest in our communities. Unfortunately, counting kindergarteners proved historically difficult in 2010. The Annie E Casey Foundation noted that year “had the worst undercount since 1950, with nearly 5 percent of children under age 5 — about 1 million kids — not counted.” The Census Bureau shares their concern regarding this growing trend and estimates that “children under 5 will represent the largest undercounted population in the country” in 2020.
All children deserve to live a healthy, prosperous childhood with equal opportunity to pursue their education. As we know too well in communities of color, however, a lack of educational resources not only stunts children’s potential but also can compound the school-to-prison pipeline.
As noted by author and prisoners’ rights advocate Christopher Zoukis, “Research shows that children who struggle to read in first grade are 88 percent more likely to struggle in grade four. ” By fourth grade, these children are exponentially more likely to either drop out of school or be incarcerated.
Unfortunately, overcoming fear stoked by the administration makes for an uphill climb for grassroots groups gearing up to ensure communities of color, particularly immigrant families, receive reliable information about privacy protections for information they provide. The Census Bureau’s own researchers estimated 9 million people would have foregone participating over the citizenship question. Indeed, much of the harm may have been done as immigrant families, many led by immigrant parents with citizen children, avoid the census because of the confusion created by the administration.
That’s why it’s contingent upon all of us to ensure that state lawmakers nationwide invest handsomely, as California has done, in support of grassroots efforts. It’s an investment that’s not only the right thing to do but promises to reap incredible returns for local communities.
Defaulting on our children’s academic futures would be as reprehensible as the politically-motivated efforts to dwarf their representation in the 2020 decennial census. Every kindergartner who steps into a classroom matters. Let’s make sure they're counted.
Jorge Luis Vasquez Jr. is an associate counsel at LatinoJustice. Based in New York City, he litigates and advocates on policy matters to address local and national social justice disparities. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeVasquezNYC.