2020 Census: Why and How to Build Understanding in Your School Community

Data from the decennial census, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau every 10 years, has a powerful impact on the future of our communities and their voice in Congress. Before the 2020 Census begins in March of next year, school systems can prepare their community to participate by helping residents understand the local impact of a national census and the importance of a complete count – particularly for their schools.

NSPRA encourages school public relations professionals to use the following resources, gathered by its Communication Equity and Diversity Task Force, to build greater understanding now of the 2020 Census.

Why is the census count important for schools?

  1. Federal Funding: The decennial census determines the amount of federal funding distributed to states for programs that impact schools, students and families.
    • Across the United States, 325 census-guided federal spending programs distributed more than $900 billion in 2016, according to the George Washington Institute of Public Policy.
    • Census-guided federal spending programs that impact schools and students include Title I grants to local educational agencies, the national school lunch and breakfast programs, special education grants, career and technical education grants, the Title IV-E foster care program, Section 8 housing assistance, Head Start programs and more.
  2. Representation in Congress: Census counts impact the number of seats each state will hold in the U.S. House of Representatives. A state’s representation at the federal level ultimately can impact funding and supports available to schools within that state.

What are the challenges to an accurate census count?

Undercounting in a census can lead a state to have lower levels of funding and underrepresentation in Congress. States with high numbers of hard-to-count groups such as those in rural areas, on Native lands and in highly populated minority communities have had historic undercounts of the total population.

Several factors are leading to predictions of a larger-than-normal undercount for the 2020 Census:

  • New Digital Census: The U.S. Census Bureau will mail forms to everyone in the United States, and responses can be done online, through the mail or by phone. This will be the first digital census, but not everyone has digital access. There are significant digital gaps between white adults and black and Hispanic adults as well as between rural and non-rural Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.
  • Citizenship Fears: Leaders from immigrant and minority communities have expressed concern that fear and distrust created by the debate over inclusion of a citizenship question, which was blocked by the courts for the 2020 Census, will contribute to a higher than normal undercount.
  • Race and Ethnicity Questions: The 2020 Census will continue to include two separate questions for collecting data on race and ethnicity, instead of combining the race and Hispanic origin questions to improve the accuracy of the data.
  • Data Security Concerns: The U.S. Census Bureau is taking steps to protect data collected in the census, but concerns about the security and confidentiality of data may also contribute to an undercount.
  • Reduced Outreach: Congress has demanded a lower cost per household than for the 2010 count, so there will be fewer in-person outreach efforts for the 2020 Census. This means fewer local census offices, field staff and field tests.

How can school systems build understanding of the 2020 Census?

The 2020 Census will likely determine future funding for programs in your school system, so building understanding of the census is a natural goal for school communicators.

Plan now for a multi-tiered communication strategy that will periodically share fact-based information in the months leading up to and during the census, in the major languages of your community. Consider the communication preferences of your staff, parents and other stakeholders when deciding how best to deploy all of the communication tools available to your system: district and school websites, student backpacks, open house events, parent-teacher conferences, district apps, automated notification system emails, print and digital newsletters, social media, video channels, etc.

Be sure to set some evaluative measures to determine whether your plan worked; comparing your community’s 2010 Census and 2020 Census participation rates is one easy measure.

Want more inspiration?

The U.S. Census Bureau and a variety of non-profit organizations have provided resources to assist with communications about the 2020 Census. Review the resources below, including several from NSPRA members, to determine which can inform your census communication plan.

Care to share?

Have a great example of 2020 Census communications in your school system? Share it with mbraham@nspra.org for possible inclusion in the online NSPRA Gold Mine.