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Funding Concerns Continue for Schools, Regardless of Census Citizenship Question

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Updated.

Education groups concerned about a fair distribution of federal education money though they got their wish Tuesday, when the Trump administration announced it would print forms for the 2020 census without a controversial question about respondents' citizenship status.

Later, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice reversed course and said they were trying to find a way to incorporate the item, which is the subject of ongoing legal disputes, on orders from President Donald Trump.

Education groups have feared that citizenship question would make some households reluctant to participate, leading to distorted data.

But whether or not the question is ultimately excluded, community groups and national organizations say fear and confusion could still lead to an inaccurate count. They are still planning outreach efforts to ensure participation among Latinos and immigrant groups.

The stakes are high for schools, especially in areas with high percentages of these populations (which federal officials have long designated as "hard to count.") That's because census data is used to allocate education-related federal funding, including nearly $16 billion in money for students from low-income households, and more than $12 billion in grants to states under federal special education law.

Latino advocacy groups and civil rights groups re-upped their pledge to ensure an accurate count Tuesday night , reacting to news reports that census forms would go to press without the question, even as President Trump caused confusion by calling news reports that cited his own Justice Department "FAKE!" 

"While we are happy with this decision, we know that this effort to undermine the progress of the Latino community and suppress the count of Latinos has still left its mark on Census 2020," Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said in a statement Tuesday night. "Our work mobilizing the nation's second largest population group remains more important than ever as we attempt to rebuild the trust that has been eroded over the course of this struggle.".

Advocacy groups and education organizations have long feared that question would have a chilling effect, driving down participation rates, especially in households with undocumented residents. An accurate count is crucial, they argued in briefs before the Supreme Court.

Even "relatively small errors in the census count can have far-reaching effects on tens of millions of individuals," a coalition of education organizations wrote in a brief.

"Census data has a particularly acute impact on federal funding for education," said that brief, signed by groups including the National School Boards Association and AASA, the School Superintendents Association. "In fiscal year 2015, of the top 11 programs ranked by federal assistance distributed using census data, four programs specifically involved young children and education."

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week in Department of Commerce v. State of New York (Case No. 18-966) that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross Jr.'s rationale that the citizenship question was needed to better enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965 "seems to have been contrived." That decision left open a door for the administration to come up with an alternative rationale for adding the question, but it was unclear whether the administration would make an attempt to do so and whether it had time to clear legal hurdles in time for the census. Justice Department attorneys said over the weekend they will continue efforts to find a rationale to ask the question.

That created some whiplash among groups watching the issue.

On Tuesday, the administration had confirmed it would drop the question from census forms. On Wednesday evening, a Justice Department attorneys speaking in an emergency status hearing in the U.S. District Court of Southern Maryland said the agency was working to comply with Trump's surprise tweet by including the citizenship question, even after Ross had confirmed it would be excluded from the forms.

"The Departments of Justice and Commerce have now been asked to reevaluate all available options following the Supreme Court's decision," Justice Department attorneys wrote to a separate court.

Strong Outreach

The Trump administration's immigration enforcement efforts, combined with discussion of the citizenship question have already stoked fear among Latino households, especially those with undocumented family members, groups said Wednesday, and community education efforts will be necessary to calm that fear, even if the question is left off of the form.

"Now we double down on the work to ensure a fair and accurate count," Vanita Gupta, the president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said in a statement. "We remain particularly committed to ensuring that hard-to-count communities, especially those understandably fearful of this administration's motives, take part in the next census."

U.S. Census Bureau research "shows that non-English speaking populations are less likely to understand the uses of the decennial census," the organization said in 2017. "This is important when studying Hispanics, who have diverse origins, language use and socio-economic characteristics that make some members of the group harder to reach than others."

Past census efforts have included outreach to specific communities, including targeted efforts for Hispanics and Latinos.

The National Latino Commission on Census 2020 released a report in May that raised concerns including:

  • questions about the use of websites to gather some census data;
  • cautions about language barriers for Spanish-speaking households;
  • budget shortfalls for census operations;
  • the need for strong outreach to Latino populations.

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