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The school system has boosted test scores despite deep budget cuts, say school board members making the case for a new tax to fund San Diego Unified schools.

The district is spending much more money per student than in the past, yet half of students are still not reading at grade level, say opponents of the tax.

At a glance, these two claims seem to be completely at odds. So what’s been happening to school spending and test scores? It depends on what data you look at.

Let’s break it down: Tax opponents point out that between 2003 and 2009, San Diego Unified increased spending on each student by 34 percent, to $10,399 per student, according to a state calculation that excludes some non-educational costs.

Now, if you take the last year into account, the increase is a little less dramatic. The newest figures aren’t available from the state, but a rough calculation done by San Diego Unified and vetted by the state shows that it will likely drop for 2010 — which means spending per student will have increased roughly 26.7 percent between 2003 and 2010.

Tax proponents, however, compare spending in San Diego Unified over just the last three school years. In that time, as California cut school budgets, per student spending dropped by an estimated 5 percent.

Conclusion: Spending per student has risen over the past seven years, but dropped in recent years. Whether it went up or down depends on what timeframe you use.

A point to note: A University of San Diego report on the school district estimated that after inflation, the increase in spending per student since 2003 was significantly smaller — 15.5 percent between 2003 and 2009.

Another factor was falling enrollment. Big drops in enrollment can cause costs per student to go up significantly, even if spending increases little, because schools have structural costs that don’t go down just because there are fewer students. So between 2003 and 2009, when student enrollment dropped by 20.4 percent in San Diego Unified and spending on educational costs increased by 6.5 percent, the net result was that spending per student increased even more than spending itself.

Now what about test scores? State test scores show that 56 percent of students meet state standards in English. That means 44 percent of students don’t read at their own grade level. Tax opponents round up the numbers when making their argument, contending that half of district students are not reading at grade level. They say the scores are unacceptable.

Tax proponents point out that test scores have improved over time. Based on state test scores, San Diego Unified now ranks among the best urban school districts in the state in English, math and science.

So here’s the long and the short of it: Per student spending is up since 2003 but down since 2008. Test scores are up and compare well to other California urban districts — but critics say it’s still not enough. And that’s how the two sides of this debate can make such different claims about scores and spending.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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