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OP-ED | Charter School Finance 101

by Dianne Kaplan deVries | Mar 26, 2012 4:00am
(14) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

School finance decision making requires honest data. With the governor’s education reform proposal (Senate Bill 24) and related $14.1 million and 28 percent per pupil budget increases for charter schools soon coming up for vote before the legislature, the charter school wars have heated up once again. Even a few professional education associations and city mayors have been persuaded by big-money interests to embrace wholeheartedly the charter movement’s goals of unfettered expansion and an increased share of local property tax dollars along with greater state aid.

I’m not about to be pinned into a pro-charter/anti-charter corner, nor is the school finance coalition with which I consult part-time or, for that matter, most any educator I know. It’s not that simple, as we all care deeply about ensuring quality schooling for every Connecticut child, and we are all profoundly concerned about the persistently poor performance of large and small urban school districts that serve the majority of this state’s poor, minority, and immigrant children. We strongly believe that school finance is at the heart of any successful or failing school; it is the ship’s keel and rudder, and without abundant objective data both will cause the ship to sink. Like adequate resources, good data are necessary, though certainly not sufficient, for achieving excellence.

What I therefore find perplexing, if not altogether maddening, is the disregard for sound data by our policymakers to support the additional investment in charter schools rather than in improving the traditional school districts that enroll 92 percent of the state’s PK-12 public school students, investing those resources in quality PK programs that carry proven long-term academic and social benefits, or helping districts and their municipalities meet the extraordinary costs of special education mandates. And what news junkie can ignore the fact that deep pockets increasingly seem to be influencing education policy here in Connecticut and across the nation?

Into the foray wades Professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University, a real star among school finance experts nationally.  A former private school teacher and charter school aficionado turned researcher extraordinaire and prolific writer, Baker excels at weighing in on timely and controversial school finance matters.  His “SchoolFinance101” blog thus enjoys a very wide, albeit largely technical following, limited primarily by readers’ patience with his heavy reliance on scatterplots and other complicated graphic displays that are often difficult to read online. Nevertheless, his work is rich in ideas and preliminary conclusions that can and should be tested by school finance researchers everywhere using their own data. (By way of full disclosure, he is also an expert witness in the CCJEF v. Rell school finance lawsuit.)

For those lacking time to read his latest blog entry, “Snapshots of Connecticut Charter School Data,” summarized below are its contents. Keep in mind that it’s a blog, not a research tome or advocacy website. Rather than posit any particular political view, his blog provides quick analyses intended to stimulate more thorough research by his readers and tough questions by state and local education policymakers.

SchoolFinance101 Blog’s Snapshots of State’s Charter Schools

Baker begins his March 24 blog with a school-by-school demographic analysis for Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven. The series of scatterplots show that charter schools in these cities serve substantively different student populations than the host districts in which they are located and from which they draw most of their students. For Hartford, the graphs show students from the two charters operating there to have poverty rates (based on free lunch eligibility, not the less-poor reduced-price level) about 40 percent lower than the regular public schools and to enroll nearly no ELL students. That same pattern is echoed in the graph for Bridgeport and appears only slightly better in the one for New Haven. Looking at the Achievement First record for serving special education students in those three cities, Baker finds that AF does not serve handicapped student populations comparable to district populations.

From a policy perspective, Baker concludes that charter schools cannot serve as a model for expansion that could be expected to yield similar outcomes for all children in these three cities, inasmuch as there are simply too few non-poor, non-ELL, non-SPED students within those urban locales to enable these schools to duplicate whatever current levels of success they may be exhibiting.

Comparing charter school and traditional public school district finances dollar-for-dollar, Baker notes, is an unfair and inappropriate metric, given the dissimilar student populations they serve. Moreover, he points out that there are additional complexities involved in any such comparisons, inasmuch as host districts are required to retain responsibility for the transportation and special education costs of students attending charters, which extra costs are reflected in inflated per pupil expenditures within those host districts. To demonstrate the importance of making cost adjustments that take such hidden costs into consideration, Baker excludes those charter expenditures from the 2008-09 operating budgets of Connecticut’s traditional school districts, plotting those pared-down per pupil expenditures against spending by the 17 charter schools. His conclusion: after adjusting school district expenditures to account for the mandated costs of transportation and SPED that augment charter school budgets, “charters appear relatively well resourced.”

Baker’s graphs that adjust for these mandated district contributions in 2008-09 show that Amistad Academy overspent New Haven Public Schools by $2,592 per pupil, Achievement First Hartford Academy overspent the public schools in that city by $2,633 per pupil, and Bridgeport Achievement First overspent its local public schools by $2,396 per pupil.  He also points to findings from an earlier blog posting wherein he showed that for Amistad, the funding difference translates to both class size and salary advantages.

Even while allowing that charters may incur as much as an extra $1,000 per pupil in the cost of facilities leasing or debt service over and above that of traditional public schools, Baker’s figures show that the charters within the three big cities nevertheless come out on top. Toward the end of his blog, he discusses in more detail cost issues pertaining to charter school facilities, pointing to flaws in a Ball State University/Public Impact study that fails to adjust for the required fiscal responsibilities of host school districts (like transportation and SPED). He also throws in a couple of figures comparing plant maintenance and operations expenditures for districts and charters (charter costs are lower), as well as administrative spending comparisons per pupil (charter costs are higher)

The final prong of Baker’s exploration of pro-charter arguments dissects the oft-repeated rhetoric of those schools being able to “beat the odds with the same kids and less money.” Having already refuted the myths of charter schools serving the same student populations as traditional school districts and with less money, here he raises questions about whether charters are actually beating the odds. Three scatterplots show 5th grade mean scale scores for math on the 2010-11 Connecticut Mastery Test by the percentage of students receiving free meals (a higher poverty standard than reduced-price meals) of all Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven schools serving that grade. Results demonstrate how “comparably ridiculous” the comparisons are between the atypical students enrolled in the Hartford and Bridgeport charters and their significantly more impoverished peers enrolled in host district schools. Results for the two Achievement First charters in New Haven were more in line with those of public schools serving a similar percentage of students eligible for free/reduced price meals (the lesser poverty standard).

Baker concludes that brief student outcomes discussion with a scatterplot displaying the 7th grade CMT math scale scores by the free/reduced price meal poverty standard for schools statewide, labeling the data points for charter schools. Six of the charters fall below that trend line, and only four are more than a few points above it. As Baker notes, none of these CMT mean scale score comparisons account for the influence of SPED and ELL students’ test scores on urban school district mean scores.

Data on Charter Spending by New Haven and Stamford

Do I wish that Baker had gone farther with his Connecticut charter school analysis? You bet! But is it better than any charter data we’ve seen from the State Department of Education? Absolutely! Unfortunately, it’s not the thorough technical cost/benefits evaluation of the state’s investment in charter schools vs. traditional public schools, magnet schools, Open Choice, voc ags, or the technical high schools that policymakers ought to have before them.

To add to the Baker charter school analysis and the debate surrounding SB 24’s proposed $1,000 per charter student charge-back to the sending district’s ECS funds, I thought readers would be interested in seeing just how much money two of our big cities already invest in the independently operated charters located there. As an outraged taxpayer from one of these cities pointed out to me, if the state now wants to charge these cities another $1,000 per student, then her city should immediately cease all other financial support for the charters. Many others have weighed in to say that with the hefty charter school increases proposed by the Governor, each charter — just like any other school district — should have to pay for all its SPED services and transportation costs. Finally, it goes without saying that the State Board of Education ought to enforce charter school admission and retention practices that result in racially integrated enrollments as well as ELL and SPED student numbers that reflect their prevalence within the host district.

New Haven Public Schools are spending $101,907 on the 1,674 students attending charter schools located in that city plus an undetermined share of the district’s $9.1 million transportation costs.  The city’s loss of ECS dollars for those students would have amounted to more than $16.2 million had the formula not been frozen due to the recession. If SB24 is passed with the $1,000 per charter student deduction from the ECS intact, the cost to New Haven in FY13, assuming the same number of students will opt to attend charters, would total $1,674,000, or more than 16 times greater than the generous sums the district is currently expending on charters, as shown below. SB 24’s increased ECS foundation of $12,000 per student also means that the city will forgo as much as another $20 million in education aid for its taxpayers’ schoolchildren who enroll in charters and can therefore cannot be counted as resident students for ECS purposes. Although the city would receive an extra $3.6 million in ECS if the bill is passed, those additional dollars are “conditional” and depend on the district’s ability to satisfy the Education Commissioner’s reform conditions. After the state slices off the charter “tuition,” that leaves New Haven Public Schools a net ECS increase of only $1.9 million (or about $97 per pupil) for meeting those new conditions and helping with other vital spending needs in a district of some 19,875 students.

The predicament of Stamford is even more twisted. At present 260 Stamford students attend two charter schools located in that city, Stamford Academy and Trailblazers Academy, and another 3 students travel to Norwalk to attend Side by Side Charter School. As shown below, the city currently contributes more than $1.4 million toward providing for its charter students ($5,444 per pupil) over and above what those schools receive directly from the state and the funds they raise privately. If SB 24 is passed, the city’s ECS allocation would increase by $1.2 million — less than it currently spends on its charters — and there would be no ECS funding for local students enrolled in those schools.  After the $1,000 per charter student deduction, the net ECS increase for the district would be just $61 per pupil, assuming it (like New Haven) can meet the Commissioner’s reform conditions.

Does anyone really believe such fiscal policies make rational sense for supporting school districts, their municipalities, or the ambitious reforms that need to be undertaken within every school and school district across the state? Rather than supporting the governor’s agenda, many such fiscal provisions of SB 24 may serve the opposite effect. Pending comprehensive, systemic school finance reform that results in adequate and equitable state funding for all schoolchildren and their school districts and schools — including charters, magnets, and other important schools of choice — the state should continue to fund charter schools outside the ECS equalization aid formula. Similarly, all “conditional” funding, whether targeted at desired reforms, reimbursing extraordinary SPED costs, or supporting transportation, should be relegated to categorical grants outside the ECS.

Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.

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(14) Comments

posted by: Jeff Klaus | March 26, 2012  7:03am

Professor Baker has been caught “playing for pay”’, in other words taking money from special interests and writing reports which support the outcomes desired by the funder.  This is antithetical to any legitimate research philosophy.  But it should surprise no one that CCJEF, itself an organization with a theory based on hypothetical, unproven relationships between quality education and funding, would point to Baker’s “work” as being supportive of its anti-charter bias.

Folks, if CCJEF has its way, income taxes would go up by 25% and education quality would forever be abysmal.  When has more money, and in this case TONS more $, ever produced better education outcomes in cities?

posted by: Noteworthy | March 26, 2012  9:10am

“Blood” is also found on the hands of ConnCAN and Achievement First and other related entities who are less than transparent with their co-mingling of boards, messages and money. In fact, they’ve hidden their inter-dependency on purpose and dismiss any concerns with shallow comments like “look at our 990. It’s all in there” as ConnCAN’s Riccards alleged. He also hid behind the skirts of being a charity, a 501c3 which of course, doesn’t guarantee being above reproach nor does it put an auto-halo on its motivations or methods.

This is deeply troubling. While I am not familiar with the allegations of Baker’s “pay for play” he can hardly be dismissed as being overly compromised by money. One could make the same allegation with AF, ConnCAN and all the rest, initially funded by a few wealthy donors and hedge funds and ever since have been asking for more money. How long have I listened to and at one time supported ConnCAN’s “money should follow the child” message? Like forever and the effort for more money is front and center of the lobbying campaign in this session.

The public should be very skeptical of this “education reform” package. There is too much money at stake. There is too much lobbying and too much disagreement from education experts. And when this bill is peeled back, there are too many details like Adamowski’s special and unearned pension deal and new/expanded powers for AF graduate and founder Pryor not to mention this “reform” legalizes what has been deemed illegal in Malloy’s takeover of the Bridgeport Public Schools.

This bill should be scrapped. When real adults, not children playing dress up can get back in the room to craft meaningful reform, perhaps we will end up with something that will positively impact education. But it should not start and end with money. We spend a fortune already and spending even more while just giving it to different people is not a silver bullet to better outcomes.

posted by: Jo Lutz | March 26, 2012  6:27pm

FACTS:
1.)  All of the data in this blog is several years out of date, and is absurdly selective of data to the point where many measures focus on only on 4 out of Connecticut’s 17 charter schools. One wonders why the vast majority of charter schools (also of grade levels, subject areas, and years) were excluded from a study which purports to generalize about charters. If you look at growth scores in ALL CHARTERS over ALL GRADES (that take the CMT) over FIVE YEARS (2006-2010), you will see that individual cohorts of students gained 4.3 more percentage points in Math each year than the same cohorts in their host district, and 3.9 more percentage points in Reading. Looking at growth allows us to put aside the question of equivalent populations, for all students should show improvement from year to year over their own performance (in fact, this sort of analysis tends to favor cohorts that start out low-achieving).
2.)  New money for charters in SB24 has strings attached that negate the entire argument against such money: charters must attract and retain the priority populations Ms. DeVries refers to. The charter community fully supports these goals.
3.)  Were a $1,000 contribution to be required, Stamford would be unaffected because they are already doing it. Stamford contributes to its charter schools voluntarily because they are a good investment. The city has been doing this for years and clearly feels it is money well spent. Hartford would be only mildly affected because they already contribute to one of their two charter schools. $1,000 is a bargain compared to what municipalities contribute to other public schools.
4.)  The average charter school right now educates a student population that is 11.6% special education, which is a fraction of a percent below the state average and only a couple of percentage points below the average host district. This is hardly a “substantial” difference.
5.)  Of CT’s 17 charter schools, 5 have SPED populations above that of their local district. If Baker or DeVries wants to assert that the CMT scores of schools with lower SPED populations “don’t count” (despite the fact that SPED students take a different test), then they cannot then cite the fact that some charters score lower than their districts when those charters serve 16-27% special ed students.
6.)  Of the 12 schools with lower SPED populations than their districts, 10 begin in the early elementary grades. Much difference in the rate of SPED identification might be attributed to rigorous pre-K and Kindergarten and early intervention for more slowly developing students, such that the need to identify children as special education is reduced.
7.)  Looking at Mr. Baker’s bar graphs, it would appear that free lunches and ELL are unevenly distributed across schools within a city, regardless of governance model. For instance the Hartford ELL graph would align closely with a graph of geographic proximity to non-English-speaking neighborhoods. By the same token, Hartford’s free-lunch graph would align closely with one that showed proximity to affluent neighborhoods and suburbs. Even if a school is technically accessible to the entire metro region, geography is a factor in the choices parents make. Since Ms. DeVries makes the argument that schools which serve “different populations” do not merit the same investment, would she apply that standard to all schools? Or just charters?
8.)  Charter schools would love to be able to pay the full cost of special education and transportation themselves. This would mean that instead of the local district receiving the funds from state and local sources and passing them on in the form of services, that the charter schools would receive the same funds directly and pay for these services themselves. The bottom line is that local and state taxpayers are responsible for purchasing a public education for their students, regardless of which and how many schools provide it.
9.)  Most charter schools in Connecticut receive little or no private funding. Fundraising is also not the sole purview of charters, but available to (and used by) all kinds of schools. The difference is that charters have to fundraise if they want to provide their kids the same resources they would get if they went to another public school.

posted by: brutus2011 | March 26, 2012  8:26pm

brutus2011

I find the case advocating CCJEF’s position is likely to meet disappointment with ten CT Supreme Court.
I believe a more profitable use of CCJEF’s resources would be to lobby for legislation mandating transparency and strict accounting of the expenditure of public education funds.
Make it near impossible for politicians and their appointees to intercept money meant for the classroom to be diverted elsewhere.
Once corruption is arrested in the use of public funds in the school system, a lot of problems that are perplexing will disappear.
The survival of our republic will be greatly enhanced if we can restore proper public virtue to our school’s management.

posted by: Linda12 | March 27, 2012  9:07am

Everyone should read these two reports:

</strong>Snapshots of CT charter school data</strong>

Looking past the spin: Teach for America

posted by: jwerblow | March 27, 2012  1:10pm

Jeff,
Speaking as both a assistant professor in Teacher Education and as a parent who was born and raised in CT, please do not spend any more of your time and energy trashing CCJEF or any other local efforts to create a more equitable funding system in CT with unsupported claims. CCJEF, with help from legal scholars at Yale, has spent over 13 years working toward seeking a more equitable funding formula in CT. You are obviously free to your own opinion,but if you want to be more effective in expressing your perspectives, at least, cite your claims with empirical evidence.

posted by: Jeff Klaus | March 27, 2012  9:32pm

Jwerblow, where in the CCJEF research is there any empirical evidence to support the claim that “equitable funding” will result in better educational outcomes?  No hypotheticals please.

posted by: schoolmom | March 28, 2012  2:03pm

There is absolutely empirical evidence that adequate and equitable funding improves student learning.  A few examples:

An independent analysis was done of Maryland’s Bridge to Excellence school funding reform, and found that increased spending resulted in substantial improvement in student achievement in math and reading and in increased innovation in the classroom. In New Jersey, increased funding in the Abbott districts resulted in an increase in graduation rates, especially for African American males, among other measures of improved achievement.  The debate is well-settled as to whether “money matters.”  Even Eric Hanushek was forced to admit in court, under oath, several times, that “only a fools would say that money doesn’t matter.”

Are you seriously opposed to equity in funding?

And I do find it odd the husband of the founder of Achievement First is questioning the objectivity of Professor Baker.

posted by: saramerica | March 28, 2012  5:14pm

saramerica

Jeff - The only so-called “evidence” that you’ve provided about Professor Bruce Baker is from the thoroughly discredited pseudo-journalist (and I use the term VERY loosely here) James O’Keefe.  O’Keefe has edited video footage in an unethical way in order to promote a false narrative. You are only discrediting yourself. Plus, as SchoolMom points out, you clearly have a financial interest in this fight.

posted by: Background Check | March 28, 2012  8:46pm

Jeff Klaus is connected to the CEO of Achievement First—the privately-run, for-profit charter school company which was slated to get $10 million of state money if Malloy’s original bill was passed.

Take his comments with a grain of salt.

posted by: Jeff Klaus | March 29, 2012  8:48am

Wow, ctnewsjunkie, clearly the wild wild west of ed blogs.  Play fast and loose with the facts!

“School Mom” - Newark NJ spends about $20K per student ($20K!) and test scores have only gone down since Abbott.  Abbott is the case AGAINST wasting money by putting it into a system that has always been unresponsive to additional funding.  I’m not against more ed funding, I’m against funding a system that doesn’t work at all.

Sara - Unless you think that isn’t Baker’s voice, then all you have to do is listen to his own admission that he “plays for pay”.

I suppose that I do have a financial stake in this debate.  But who doesn’t?  Whether you’re a tax payer, a teacher, a union leader, a student etc.,  everyone has an investment in getting this right - or keeping it wrong.

“Background check” - AF is not-for-profit.

posted by: schoolmom | March 29, 2012  12:51pm

Re Abbott in New Jersey:

from the Schott Foundation

The report highlights the success of New Jersey’s Abbott plan, which demonstrates that when equitable resources are available to all students, systemic change at the state level can yield significant results. New Jersey is now the only state with a significant Black population with a greater than 65 percent high school graduation rate for Black male students.

during the years of full Abbott implementation, from 2003 to 2008, Newark was the national urban leader in closing the high school graduation gap between black and white males.

Rutgers professor Alan R. Sadovnik

“Abbott has led to New Jersey’s recognition as a national model of fairness, equity and
social justice in an educational system where family background continues to be the
primary determinant of educational success. It has resulted in universal access to highquality,
full-day preschool programs for all 3- and 4- year old children in the Abbott
districts, a key ingredient in reducing the achievement gap. It has resulted in significant achievement gains at the fourth grade level”

The Abbott districts invested in their children by providing them with increased hours of education each day, on weekends and in the summer. The districts also used continuous professional development for teachers and other staff and, crucially, in preschool preparation.


Retired Justice Gary Stein, report on Elizabeth school district (an abbott district)

“Elizabeth school system is one of the most successful urban school districts in New Jersey and that the residents of Elizabeth rightly can take well-deserved pride in the extraordinary accomplishments of the city’s schoolchildren.”

2 rank given to Elizabeth High School in 2011 by the Washington Post in ranking the top high schools in New Jersey for preparing students for postsecondary education

3 number of National Blue Ribbon Schools, awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, in the Elizabeth Public Schools (Terence C. Reilly School No. 7, Victor Mravlag School No. 21, and William F. Halloran School No. 22)Dramatic increases in the number of students performing at high levels. In Elizabeth’s Perfect Score program, honoring students who achieve a perfect score on a state test, the honorees increased from 12 in 2005 to 330 in 2011.
• The largest number of elementary schools in any New Jersey school district receiving prestigious U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School awards as “Exemplary High Performing Schools,” with all three designated Elizabeth schools having at least 71 percent black or Hispanic students and a large percentage eligible for free lunches.

Increasing recognition of a commitment to improving students’ educational opportunities and achievement, resulting in collaborations and partnerships with prominent educational and philanthropic organizations and in prestigious awards. These include one from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, co-founded by the AMA and the Clinton Foundation, recognizing 17 Elizabeth schools for transforming themselves into healthier places for students to learn — an extraordinary number for a modest-sized district, as former President Bill Clinton specifically noted.

I’d say money well spent

posted by: schoolmom | March 29, 2012  8:15pm

from the Schott Foundation


The report highlights the success of New Jersey’s Abbott plan, which demonstrates that when equitable resources are available to all students, systemic change at the state level can yield significant results. New Jersey is now the only state with a significant Black population with a greater than 65 percent high school graduation rate for Black male students.


During the years of full Abbott implementation, from 2003 to 2008, Newark was the national urban leader in closing the high school graduation gap between black and white males.


Rutgers professor Alan R. Sadovnik


“Abbott has led to New Jersey’s recognition as a national model of fairness, equity and social justice in an educational system where family background continues to be the
primary determinant of educational success. It has resulted in universal access to highquality,
full-day preschool programs for all 3- and 4- year old children in the Abbott
districts, a key ingredient in reducing the achievement gap. It has resulted in significant achievement gains at the fourth grade level”

The Abbott districts invested in their children by providing them with increased hours of education each day, on weekends and in the summer. The districts also used continuous professional development for teachers and other staff and, crucially, in preschool preparation.

Retired Justice Gary Stein, report on Elizabeth school district (an abbott district)

“Elizabeth school system is one of the most successful urban school districts in New Jersey and that the residents of Elizabeth rightly can take well-deserved pride in the extraordinary accomplishments of the city’s schoolchildren.”

2 rank given to Elizabeth High School in 2011 by the Washington Post in ranking the top high schools in New Jersey for preparing students for postsecondary education

Dramatic increases in the number of students performing at high levels. In Elizabeth’s Perfect Score program, honoring students who achieve a perfect score on a state test, the honorees increased from 12 in 2005 to 330 in 2011.

The largest number of elementary schools in any New Jersey school district receiving prestigious U.S. Department of Education National Blue Ribbon School awards as “Exemplary High Performing Schools,” with all three designated Elizabeth schools having at least 71 percent black or Hispanic students and a large percentage eligible for free lunches.
Increasing recognition of a commitment to improving students’ educational opportunities and achievement, resulting in collaborations and partnerships with prominent educational and philanthropic organizations and in prestigious awards. These include one from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, co-founded by the AMA and the Clinton Foundation, recognizing 17 Elizabeth schools for transforming themselves into healthier places for students to learn — an extraordinary number for a modest-sized district, as former President Bill Clinton specifically noted.

I’d say money well spent.

posted by: Jeff Klaus | March 30, 2012  8:49am

In Abbott districts, the massive funding increase directed towards pre-k through 3rd grade has essentially produced very little outcomes in later grades. 

This should be a lesson to CT.  The Pre-K silver bullet which this legislature has fallen for will be wasted money if we do not reform grades 3 - 12. 

But in the land of steady habits, we take the easy path because after all, who among us can argue about pre-k investment?  So uncontroversial. 

Also in NJ, increased graduation rates from schools which specialize in social promotion is only a harbinger of vast increases in spending in community college for remedial education. 

In NJ, there are lots more grads showing up at the doorstep of community college unable to read above an 8th grade level. 
Abbott hasn’t solved anything.