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Here's How Changes to the U.S. Census Could Impact Education Funding

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The Trump administration has decided to add a question to the 2020 U.S. Census about whether respondents are U.S. citizens, and it's causing quite a stir. But how exactly is census information used in education? And how could a question about citizenship impact schools?

Let's tackle that first question. The decennial census results impact the two biggest pots of federal money for K-12 schools: Title I aid for disadvantaged students, which receives $15.8 billion in fiscal 2018, and special education grants to states, which receive $12.3 billion. 

For example, the decennial census data is used—along with other data collected by the Census Bureau—to produce "single-year estimates of income and poverty for all U.S. states and counties as well as estimates of school-age children in poverty" for the nation's school districts in the Small Area Income Poverty and Estimates Program (SAIPE). This program, in turn, impacts Title I. 

"The Title I and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) formulas factor in Census data that is informed by the decennial census," said Sheara Krvaric, an attorney at the Federal Education Group, a legal and consulting firm in Washington. 

The decennial data collected by the Census Bureau are far from the only factor in determing these allocations, because that information is only collected once a decade. So there are other sources of information as well as projections that are used for funding decisions made by the U.S. Department of Education. 

But it's not just at the federal level where this type of data is used.

Michael Wiltfong, the director of school finance and school facilities at the Oregon education department, said his state relies on SAIPE information for its weighted student-funding formula, which takes into account students in poverty. 

But what about the impact of asking people about their U.S. citizenship? It might be best not to jump to conclusions when it comes to K-12 money.

In theory, a state or community that has a large share of low-income noncitizens who shy away from taking the 2020 Census, and who also have children in the public schools, could see an impact on their formula-funded federal education money.

In a recent Education Week Commentary piece published before the Trump team announced the change, Gregg Behr, the executive director of the Grable Foundation, a Pittsburgh philanthropy, said adding a citizenship question "would dramatically reduce response rates among undocumented migrants and their families," and would ultimately withhold "precious education funding from those who need it most."

But the Title I funding formulas take into account many factors that aren't directly connected to the decennial census, such as state K-12 spending decisions. 

"The impact of any change in the decennial census is really hard to trace to any district's allocations, because the formulas are so complicated and have so many factors," Krvaric said. 

However, Wiltfong said there's a comparison to be made to Oregon's relatively large population of homeless students, of which Wiltfon said there are roughly 20,000. Just as those students can be difficult to track and therefore complicate state funding decisions, he said, a reworked census that creates a new class of people that's harder to track could impact Oregon's education aid. 

"If people aren't reporting, we're not going to be able to pick that up," Wiltfong said.

Here's one interesting political twist: For Title I as well as other education programs, ESSA says decisions about funding will be made by the federal education secretary based on the "most recent satisfactory data."

Let's say the Trump administration proceeds with its plans for the decennial census, but then a Democrat assumes the presidency in 2021. If the new presidential administration has a huge problem with how the Trump team handled the census, could that administration decide the data collected by the 2020 census was not "satisfactory"?

There's obviously no way to answer that question now, but that ESSA language might provide a legal avenue of complicating the 2020 census and data the Education Department relies on for key programs. 

Image by Stephanie Shafer for Education Week


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