Resources for Understanding Current & Controversial Issues Surrounding the Census

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Lead Teacher Mentor

In a recent blog, Shawn shared some of the history and underpinnings of the controversy surrounding the return of the citizenship question on the short form of the census. Shawn explained “The legality of the ‘citizenship question’ is being challenged in federal court (Illinois is among the signatories). It reads ‘Is this person a citizen of the United States?’ Yes options include native born, born abroad to parents who are citizens, or a naturalized citizen. The no option is accompanied by the clause ‘not a citizen’.” The video clip from the Washington Post (linked to the right) further defines the controversy surrounding the citizenship question.


This summer, through a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, illinoiscivics.org is hosting free, two-day workshops throughout the state of Illinois focusing on “Putting the Pieces Together: Civics, Standards and Curriculum Design” to support teachers in implementing the new Illinois Social Science standards and high-school civics requirement. To illustrate the proven practices of current and controversial issue discussions, simulations of democratic processes and possible service learning activities, participants engage in an inquiry that examines the supporting question, “How do courts count?”, using the census citizenship question as a case study. The sample lesson is one of many free lessons housed at illinoiscivics.org that incorporates resources from civic education partners, like Street Law and icivics, to connect educators with materials to enhance classroom practice.

To dive a bit deeper into the significance and the implications of the census, here are some resources to explore “poolside” this summer
  • Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio aired a podcast about the census ready for classroom use.
  • This article from Pew Research provides background information about the history of the citizenship question on the census and possible impact on representation and funding.
  • Pulitzer Prize winning PolitiFact has created a fact sheet titled, “What you need to know about the citizenship question” that may prove helpful in answering student questions.
  • Five-Thirty-Eight has an article illustrating possible repercussions of the citizenship question in this article, “There is More at Stake with the Census’s Citizenship Question than Response Rates.”
  • Shawn’s original blog post links to several articles and organizations that are involved in the census and making sure diverse interests are represented in the process.
  • Consider joining one of our remaining illinoiscivics.org workshops to experience our Census and the Citizenship Question inquiry and other strategies for students to practice the knowledge, skills and dispositions of effective civic engagement.

Do you have any resources to help students understand the process and implications of the census? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Census 2020: A Monday Morning Lesson Plan for Civics Classes

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

My teaching career began in the fall of 1999, and the 2000 Census was among the topics I tackled with students in my “Social Problems” classes. At the time, there was significant debate over whether the U.S. Constitution required a hard count of the population, or if statistical sampling techniques would suffice given their superior record for accuracy. The former interpretation prevailed, and the rest is history.

Yet the Census is a decennial phenomenon. Fast forward nearly twenty years, and a plethora of new issues have emerged, the subject of this first post in a two-part series on Census 2020.

Let’s begin by examining the constitutional underpinnings of the Census. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution lays out the process of congressional apportionment based upon an “enumeration…made within the first three years of the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent term of ten years, in such manner as they shall by law direct.”

This responsibility is carried out by the Census Bureau, housed within the Commerce Department. Counting begins in earnest in April 2020, but preparations are already well underway, and concerns heightened for a number of reasons.

One, according to Marcia Avner of the Bauman Foundation, the Bureau is inadequately funded, has reduced staff while at the same time charging them with larger territories, has delayed plans to communicate broadly about the process, and currently has only interim leadership. Moreover, this Census will be the first one orchestrated entirely online, employing technologies with limited testing, and presenting access issues for those without broadband at home.

Aside from these significant challenges, the addition of the “citizenship question” to the standard Census form has raised concerns about both its impact on hard-to-count (HTC) communities' willingness to participate and the potential consequences of sharing this information with an administration hostile to immigrants.

The legality of the “citizenship question” is being challenged in federal court (Illinois is among the signatories). It reads “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” Yes options include native born, born abroad to parents who are citizens, or a naturalized citizen. The no option is accompanied by the clause “not a citizen.”


By law, all residents are required to complete census forms. According to Asian Americans for Advancing Justice (AAAJ), penalties for not answering questions or providing false responses may result in $100 and $500 fines, respectively. Actions to inhibit an accurate count could warrant fines of $1,000 and up to one year imprisonment. However, the Census Bureau lacks law enforcement powers, a responsibility of the Justice Department. The Census Bureau does not make such referrals.

According to Politifact, the “Rule of 72” prevents the disclosure of personally identifiable information provided to the Census Bureau for a period of 72 years after its collection. Concerns have been raised about the Roosevelt Administration’s use of census data to facilitate the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. This action was legal at the time, but current statute, as articulated above, prevents its recurrence. Moreover, the Bureau has a strong culture of commitment to confidentiality and privacy, key to the currency of trust it must build with residents to ensure an accurate count.

In balance, then, we strongly recommend that residents complete census forms given the stakes for Illinois that we will lay out in a subsequent post. As educators, we can illustrate these stakes and encourage students to help facilitate form completion at home. In fact, students as young as 15 are permitted to complete forms on their family’s behalf, a common practice in immigrant families according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Judy Baar Topinka’s Legacy of Public Service an Inspiration for Civic Learning in Illinois

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

On Monday, Illinois Civics Teacher Mentors convened in Champaign for the third and final collaboratory in preparation for a summer of intensive, two-day regional trainings that they will co-facilitate with Lead Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels.

The three-day collaboratory centers on the high school civics course requirement, K-12 social studies standards, and related curriculum design. Content focuses on the judicial branch, redistricting, and the 2020 Census, with pedagogical emphasis on creating lesson plans encompassing informed action and how to assess it authentically.

Mentors were also treated to a visit by Joseph Baar Topinka, author of a new book titled Just Judy that honors his late mother’s life devoted to public service. His mom served as State Representative, Senator, and Treasurer, and as the only female gubernatorial nominee of the Republican Party. Her 2006 bid for Governor ultimately fell short, but her second act as State Comptroller commenced four years later.


Topinka died suddenly after reelection in 2014, and her faithful son seeks to carry forth her legacy of love of state, ethnic pride, civility, and compromise. Just Judy plays on each of these themes and puts forth a blueprint for restoring Illinoisans’ faith in state government.

The brisk 96-page book is biographical of both Topinka and the Land of Lincoln she loved. It is appropriate for students grades 6-12, with compelling illustrations throughout and key concepts, further resources, and lesson plan ideas listed at the end of each chapter. It aligns well with middle and high school civics standards and also meets the state’s women’s history mandate, as Topinka was very much a pioneer in the pre-me too era.

Her son, in his presentation to teacher mentors, reflected on his middle school years as formative to his own civic development. Most of his lessons emanated from his mom’s political career, and civility topped all of them. Topinka treated allies and enemies alike with great respect. Senator Phil Rock (D-Oak Park) was always “Mr. President,” and while she was no fan of Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), she learned to work across the aisle with him on issues of common concern.

It is therefore fitting that Just Judy be on the recommended reading list of the Illinois #CivicsIsBack Campaign. Thanks to her son’s contributions, her legacy will live on in civics classrooms throughout the Prairie State. Please add Just Judy to your summer reading lists and class syllabi this fall.

Springfield Administrators Reflect and Model the Benefits of Diversity

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Dating back as far as 2009, the McCormick Foundation, under the auspices of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, has worked with the DuPage County Regional Office of Education (ROE) to develop an administrator academy in civics. Like teachers, school administrators must accumulate continuing education credits in order to maintain their certification in the State of Illinois, and academies sponsored by ROE’s are one such vehicle.

While teachers will always be the heart and soul of our work to strengthen school-based civic learning in Illinois, administrators are another key stakeholder with the potential to lead their schools and districts in pursuit of their historic and contemporary civic mission. Lead teacher mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I co-facilitate these academies. Mary Ellen engages participants in hands-on activities that demonstrate Illinois’ new K-12 social studies standards and high school civics course requirement, while I make the empirical case for civic learning more generally and the implementation of these new policies specifically.

After many fits and starts, we held our first academy a little over a year ago in Lombard, and have replicated the academy in Oglesby (Central Illinois), North Cook County, Wheaton, and last week in Springfield. It’s the latter academy that inspired today’s post.

Mary Ellen has cultivated a strong relationship with Springfield Public Schools District 86, as exemplified by last week’s academy, where every principal and assistant principal in the district, more than 80 in total, attended our academy at Southeast High School. I was struck immediately by the racial diversity represented among the administrative ranks. This isn’t coincidental, but instead a product of intentional recruiting by the district.


Superintendent Jennifer Gill reports that 25% of the district's administrators are nonwhite. Many of these individuals were former teachers in the district, which serves as an important pipeline, but simultaneously depletes diversity in the lower ranks. According to Bell, state universities are not cultivating a diverse teaching pool, so the district and others with similar priorities are forced to recruit elsewhere, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for example.

It’s clear that more can and must be done to address these pipeline problems to mirror the increasing diversity of our student bodies. A majority of students in K-12 classrooms in Illinois are now nonwhite.

The benefits of this diversity were most apparent when Mary Ellen modeled a Facing History lesson on the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Several administrators of color reflected on their own experiences and those of their parents.

One gentleman from Southern Arkansas shared that his mother helped integrate the local high school in 1969 that he would attend twenty years later. She encountered racism in many corners, and specifically the shamefully low expectations of her English teacher. Her son, the current Springfield administrator, counted this teacher among his favorites two decades later. It was clear that this teacher had been transformed by her experiences working with students of color.

Another administrator applied the lessons of Little Rock to present day. She’s an African-American female, but her student body has significant Latino representation, some of them hailing from families with undocumented parents. She painfully recounted the fear that many face when they registered their students for school, a constitutionally protected right regardless of citizenship status.

As we work to strengthen school-based civic learning in Illinois, we must keep the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion front and center, as they are key to the sustenance of this grand experiment in democracy. After all, we are a nation founded not by color or creed, but instead an idea.