Will Massachusetts Learn from Michigan’s Charter Calamity?

Jennifer Berkshire, aka Edushyster, is one of the best bloggers on education. She is no ideologue and increasingly has come to the give voice to rarely listened-to local folks, especially in poor minority communities—including kids—who are most impacted by the tsunami, er “portfolio”, of education reform ideas.

In a recent post, Berkshire interviewed David Arsen, an expert on education finance at Michigan State University, about a new study he has coauthored on the financial mess that has ensued from Michigan’s school-funding and liberal “choice” policies.

Berkshire, who writes from Massachusetts, the birthplace of public education, was interested in the implications that Michigan’s story has for other states that are looking to open lots of new charter schools. Massachusetts, which rose to the top of the nation’s education performance with an education-reform strategy that kept a tight cap on charters, is in the process of dismantling its successful reforms; see here and here.

This November, Massachusetts is facing a highly controversial ballot initiative to significantly increase the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth.

In this post, I review Arson’s key findings, as well as the highlights of his interview with Berkshire. I then segue to the escalating fight over whether, and how, to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts.

Arsen’s study addresses the crucial “tipping point” question that every municipality with a sizeable number of charter schools confronts, but that few policy makers—in Michigan, Massachusetts or elsewhere—have been willing to address: What is the tipping point at which fostering charter schools, where students are more affluent and have fewer special needs, undermines traditional public schools and the children they serve?

Arsen’s study also shows that one result of Michigan policy has been to strip local school districts of control of their finances. As a consequence, the study shows, the poorest districts, which are predominantly African-American, are disproportionately impacted; their schools are most likely to be taken over by the state and, in many cases, handed over to charter operators.

But before we get into the nitty gritty of Arsen’s study and his interview with Berkshire, here’s some cautionary context on how Michigan’s education policy has played out in Detroit, where the forces of unbridled market competition were let loose on the city’s schools years ago.

Just a few weeks ago The New York Times published a scathing investigation of Detroit schools, which found the city with “lots of choice,” but “no good choice.”

The article by Kate Zernike concludes: “Michigan leapt at the promise of charter schools 23 years ago, betting big that choice and competition would improve public schools. It got competition, and chaos.”

Importantly, Zernike points out, that when the charter law passed in 1993, Detroit was neither in financial nor in academic crisis. Rather, a Republican governor, John Engler, driven by free-market ideology and a hatred of unions, embraced a marketplace for schools with as much competition as a Turkish Souk. “[O]ver the past five years, divisive politics and educational ideology and a scramble for money have combined to produced a public education fiasco that is perhaps unparalleled in the United States.”

“[T]he unchecked growth of charters has created a glut of schools competing for some of the nation’s poorest students, enticing them to enroll with cash bonuses, laptops, raffle tickets for iPads and bicycles. Leaders of charter and traditional schools alike say they are being cannibalized, fighting so hard over students and the limited public dollars that follow them that no one thrives.”

The charter landscape in Detroit is so bad it makes New Orleans, which has the largest concentration of charters in the country and, a decade after Hurricane Katrina, more than a few growing pains—see here and here and here and here look like a well oiled machine. While there is little transparency or regulation in either city, Detroit has so many charter authorizers that when a school’s charter is revoked for poor quality—as has often happened—they need only go shopping for a new authorizer; New Orleans, by contrast, has had only two main authorizers.

Arsen’s study, which looked at every school district in Michigan with at least 100 students and followed them for nearly two decades, found “that 80 percent of the explained variation in district fiscal stress is due to changes in districts’ state funding, to enrollment changes including those associated with school choice policies, and to the enrollment of high-cost, special education students.”

To put it simply, Arsen told Berkshire: We found that, overwhelmingly, the biggest financial impact on school districts was the result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, especially where school choice and charters are most prevalent.”

Arsen points out that Michigan has one of the most “highly centralized school finance systems” in the country. “[T]he state sets per pupil funding levels for each district, and most operating revenues follow students when they move among districts or charter schools. Districts have very limited authority to raise additional tax revenues for school operations from local sources.” Consequently, when enrollments decline, either because families move out of the district or put their children in charter schools, local authorities have little choice but to reduce spending.

Arsens study—see chart below—shows that the impact of this funding formula hits the mostly African-American central cities the hardest, with a 46 percent drop in inflation-adjusted school funding revenue between 2002 and 2013.

Arsen

Poor districts suffer the greatest funding cuts

Says Arsen: “With numbers like that, it doesn’t really matter if you can get the very best business managers—you can get a team of the very best business managers—and you’re going to have a hard time handling that kind of revenue loss. The emergency managers, incidentally, couldn’t do it.”

The significance of Arsen’s study is twofold: First, the study addresses the tipping point problem, in which the state funding formula creates a zero-sum game in which increased charter penetration leads to ever greater financial stress on local public schools. Looking at districts with 15, 20 and 25 percent charter penetration, the study reveals that as charter penetration increases, the stress level on local public schools also goes up significantly. “What’s clear is that when the percentage gets up to the neighborhood of 20% or so, these are sizeable adverse impacts on district finances,” says Arsen.

One reason for this tipping-point problem is that increasing charter penetration turns the traditional public schools into “dumping grounds” for the neediest kids. Arsen’s study confirms that the number of special-education kids in public schools soars in districts with the highest charter-school penetration rates. Yet, Michigan covers less than 30 percent of the required costs of special education, so “these are costs that have to be absorbed by the school district’s general fund or through other local or county-level revenue sources.

The same thing happened in Harlem where 25 percent of kids now attend charter schools. See more on the tipping point in Harlem here and chart below:

EastHarlemSouthIEP%

Kids in Harlem public schools are poorer and have more special needs than their charter-school counterparts

Kids in Harlem public schools are poorer and have more special needs than their charter-school counterparts

Second, Arsen argues, the state funding policy is designed to create a fiscal argument for wresting control of school districts from local officials. Now, instead of just using the low test scores of poor minority districts, state policy has created a fiscal bind that makes it virtually impossible for the poorest minority districts to stay above water. Like payday lenders who impose exorbitant interest rates on poor clients, trapping them in a cycle of debt from which they may never escape, Michigan has locked the poorest districts into ever-accelerating fiscal crisis.

Says Arsen: “The law presumes that financial problems in these districts are caused by poor decision making of local officials, and this justifies their displacement through emergency management.  Yet our findings suggest that state school finance and choice policies were in large part responsible for the underlying financial problems. Once in control, however, emergency managers have moved aggressively to change district operations, closing schools, laying off administrators and teachers, cutting employee compensation, outsourcing services, and in two cases transferring the operation of the entire district to private charter management companies.”

Thus, the crisis of Michigan’s poorest, mostly African American school districts, are in a vicious cycle engineered, in large part, by state policy.

Berkshire’s interest in Michigan’s charter travails isn’t just academic. Massachusetts is facing enormous pressure, including a new ballot initiative in the November elections, to greatly expand its own charter sector. The charter push is led by Charlie Baker, the Republican governor of Massachusetts, and is backed by Baker’s secretary of education, James Peyser, who helped lead a ballot initiative in 2010 that would have eliminated the Commonwealth’s charter cap entirely. That ballot question was eventually scraped; in its place the cap on urban charter schools was raised from 9 percent to 18 percent, as part of the state’s successful Race-to-the-Top bid for $250 million in federal funding.

Lifting the charter cap is highly controversial in Massachusetts because charter schools played virtually no role in improving education in the Commonweath under its 23-year-old Education Reform Act. Massachusetts has only about 80 charters—though state law permits 120.  Massachusetts charters are, for the most part, high performing, as measured by test scores, although in Boston, as in Harlem and elsewhere, charter-school demographics don’t look anything like that of their traditional-public-school counterparts. For example, charter schools in Boston still enroll only about 13 percent English Language Learners, compared to about 30 percent in public schools, according to Cara Stillings Candal, a researcher at the pro-charter Pioneer Institute.

Top line of graph shows number of English language learners is still about 17 points higher at public schools than charter schools

Top line of graph shows number of English language learners is still about 17 points higher at public schools than at charter schools, represented by bottom line

Local education experts on both sides of the charter divide argue that Massachusetts charters work as well as they do partly because authorizers carefully scrutinize charter performance and ensure that only the best charters survive. Those opposed to raising the charter cap also argue that a tight cap has created an added incentive for authorizers to closely scrutinize charter operators.

While Boston charters outshine public schools on test scores, graduates of Boston public schools are more likely to graduate from college than do their charter counterparts, according to the Boston Opportunity Agenda 2015 annual report card, which is funded by, among others, the pro-charter Boston Foundation. The study sums up traditional public school college achievement with almost breathless praise: “The 27 Boston Public high schools are making tremendous progress on college completion. Since the baseline class of 2000, the percentage of students who complete a college degree or other postsecondary credential within six years of high-school graduation has grown from 35% to 50%. Additionally, the number of students enrolling at public institutions in Massachusetts who require developmental education or remediation is also declining.

Moreover, charter schools that produced college-graduation rates of 42 percent, eight points below their public school counterparts, have graduation classes dominated by girls. Somewhere along the way, the boys disappeared. In fact, among all these charter schools, only about 15 boys took home a sheepskin, according to…you guessed it… Jennifer Berkshire, who took a deeper dive into the numbers.

The bottom line, again, is that in Massachusetts, charter schools are a minuscule part of the ed-reform story. Indeed, given their small number, and the rigorous process for approving charters in Massachusetts, the real questions is: Why are college-completion rates for charter schools so low. Also: What happened to the boys?

Long gone are the days when Democratic state legislators in a grand bargain with a Republican governor, William Weld, hammered out the 1993 Education Reform Act. The battle over how, and by how much, to raise the charter cap has resulted in legislative deadlock with no compromise between two rival bills—a House bill in 2014 and a Senate bill in 2015—which would both have raised the cap by 23 percent, though the Senate bill included more checks and balances on charters and improved funding for all schools. The result is an all-or-nothing referendum, which would authorize 12 new charters a year, mostly in low-performing districts and “exempt” all “[n] ew charters and enrollment expansions approved under this law…from existing limits on the number of charter schools, the number of students enrolled in them, and the amount of local school districts’ spending allocated to them.”

The battle over the Bay State’s ballot initiative will heat up this fall. The highest stakes are in Boston where the public schools will lose an estimated $119 million this year, and endure sharp cuts in education programs, teachers, and in some cases “resources for the most vulnerable special needs students.

The budget squeeze is due at least in part to the funding drain created by the 7,100 students who have enrolled in charter schools, about 12 percent of Boston’s 5,700 public-school enrollment. With 22 charters in Boston, and an additional four in Cambridge, the Boston metro area has over one quarter of the state’s charter schools. (A dozen additional charter schools have opened and closed since the 1990s.)

In Massachusetts as elsewhere, school funding follows the child. Because the loss of students is spread unevenly across the system, the funding cuts have large ripple effects. When a new charter school attracts, say, 100 sixth graders, the losses don’t all come from a single school. Instead, they will be spread, potentially, across Boston’s 40 elementary and middle schools with sixth grade classes, which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to consolidate classes. Instead, the district has to start cutting programs. Massachusetts has put in place “shock absorbers” that are intended to provide the public-school system with a funding cushion, but these have worked “imperfectly, at best.”

In opposition to the budget cuts, Boston students staged protests last this spring. Jahi Spallos, a charter-school student and the leader of both public- and charter-school students who staged a walk out in response to the expected cuts, explained the impact on his school, Boston Green Academy, in a post on Edushyster: The school was “going to lose science classes, even though they are a core part of the curriculum and four years of science is a graduation requirement.” The school will also lose “extra curricular activities that could provide students with a full scholarship to college in the future.”

The referendum is being met with skepticism in many towns and cities that fear local schools will “lose funding when their students transfer” to charter schools. See here and here and here and here.

As the battle heats up, it is increasingly partisan. “What’s interesting is that, while charter advocates like to paint charter expansion as a progressive cause, there are signs that the issue is beginning to break along more traditional political lines,” says Berkshire.

The pro-charter lobby is backed by deep-pocketed business people, among them Abigail Johnson, CEO of Fidelity Investments, and John Kraft, president of the New England Patriots, who have pledged to spend up to $12 million on a ballot campaign.

Out-of-town billionaires are also joining the fight. Dimitri Melhorn, a DC-area venture capitalist, recently “slammed” a Boston parent who opposes the cap and blogs under the moniker “Public School Mama” likening her to opposition to that of a white supremacist.

The pro-charter lobby has reserved $6.5 million in ads for the week leading up to election day in November–ads that will be produced by SRCP Media of Washington, the firm best known for creating the “Swift Boat Veterans For Truth” campaign against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign, which made “swift-boating” synonymous with the worst sort of underhanded attack. “The decision to hire a media firm responsible for bringing down, not just one Massachuestts presidential contender (Kerry AND Dukakis), raised some serious eyebrows,” adds Berkshire.

Meanwhile, Save Our Public Schools, an anti-referendum organization backed by a variety of labor organizations and the NAACP, is also planning to mount an ad campaign.

Whether the referendum passes or not, Massachusetts schools and children would benefit from more nuanced education policy. Notes Stanley Rosenberg, president of the Massachusetts State Senate, and his colleagues in an OpEd in Commonwealth magazine: “Ballot questions are blunt instruments. The ballot question on charter school expansion is no exception.

The OpEd authors drafted the Senate’s charter law, known as the Rise Act, which sought to address many of the problems that have dogged the charter industry, including lack of transparency and community involvement, as well as the cream-skimming of the best students. Key features included:

–Echoing the Commonwealth’s Education Reform Act, which tied significant increases in public school funding to accountability, in what became known as the “grand bargain,” the Rise Act ties a gradual increase in charter schools in the lowest-performing districts to roughly $20 million-per-year in additional school funding—for both charters and traditional public schools—over a seven-year period beginning in 2019. The bill’s sponsors argued that increasing the charter cap alone would cost the Commonwealth $1 billion and impact less than 10 percent of its children.

–The bill increases transparency, a major problem in many jurisdictions with charter schools, by requiring “public disclosure of charter school finance, contracts, policies, and board meetings consistent with disclosure requirements for traditional public schools.”

–It aims to strengthen community involvement by requiring charters and parents on their boards. And it would increase the ability of local school committees to reject charters in their communities—perhaps one of the most controversial items in the legislation.

–The bill called for an opt-out lottery, by which every child in a district is “automatically enrolled in the charter school lottery process, no application required.” But families would be permitted to decline a seat if it was offered to them.

Charter proponents have dismissed the Rise Act as merely “a statement of defiance.” But given the long-simmering charter disaster in Michigan, should the charter referendum fail and Massachusetts legislators get a second crack at crafting a new grand bargain, they would do well to revisit the draft law, which seeks to avoid some of the mistakes of other states.

 

 

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10 Responses to Will Massachusetts Learn from Michigan’s Charter Calamity?

  1. nflanagan says:

    Thanks for an excellent synopsis of a study that I hope will be widely disseminated. I am a lifelong Michigander–and the irony of your title is that we in Michigan are now hearing from our elected leaders that we need to be more like Massachusetts. Our legislature dumped the Common Core, and proposed using MA’s “old” standards, and the State Bd President speaks frequently about how we need to be more like MA. Strange.

  2. whizzer65 says:

    “Backpack Full of Cash” is a film which will be shown July 31st at the annual Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) summer training conference in Amherst, Massachusetts. In many ways, the title says it all – exploitation of public schools for private ends. As this exacting and painful summation of a recent Charter School study makes clear, Charters are – for the most part – just another (very clever) way to move the public capital of public schools to the larders of private capital and accompanying corporations. They skim the “cream” under the guise of “serving” the larger public. Paraphrasing Bloomberg from the 2016 Democratic convention, I’m from Massachusetts and know a charter school scam when I see it.

  3. Pingback: Andrea Gabor: Will Massachusetts Learn from Michigan’s Disaster with Charters? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. Stephen B Ronan says:

    I responded at length to Jennifer’s posting citing ways that the Michigan situation is inapposite to Massachusetts.
    http://edushyster.com/the-cost-of-choice/

    What Gabor adds to the discussion of the Massachusetts situation, I find unpersuasive. For example she writes:

    “Massachusetts charters are, for the most part, high performing, as measured by test scores, although in Boston, as in Harlem and elsewhere, charter-school demographics don’t look anything like that of their traditional-public-school counterparts. For example, charter schools in Boston still enroll only about 13 percent English Language Learners, compared to about 30 percent in public schools, according to Cara Stillings Candal, a researcher at the pro-charter Pioneer Institute.”

    In respect to presence of ELL and special needs students at Boston charter schools, I would recommend that Gabor attend to Elizabeth’s Setren’s research: http://economics.mit.edu/files/11208

    “This paper uses admissions lotteries to estimate the effects of Boston’s charter school enrollment on student achievement and classification for special needs students.”
    […]
    “Charters generate academic gains even for the most disadvantaged charter applicants. Special needs students who scored in the bottom third on their state exams in the year of the lottery experience large positive effects of over 0.22 standard deviations in math. English Language Learners with the lowest baseline English exam scores have the largest gains. Students with the most severe needs–special education students who spent the majority of their time in substantially separate classrooms and ELLs with beginning English proficiency at the time of the lottery–perform significantly better in charters than in traditional public schools.”

    “I also document striking differences in special needs classification practices in Boston charter and traditional public schools. Charter enrollment nearly doubles the likelihood that a student in special education at the time of the lottery loses this classification by the beginning of the following school year. Moreover, charters are three times as likely to remove an ELL classification. Charters are also three times more likely than traditional public schools to move special education students into general education classrooms. Classification practices are weakly correlated to charter gains, suggesting that special needs classification is not essential for special needs students to make progress.”
    […]
    This paper “documents that special needs students are now proportionally represented in charter lotteries. Even those with the highest need are close to proportional representation in charter lotteries. Furthermore, charters remove special needs classifications at a higher rate than traditional public schools and move special education students to more inclusive classrooms. These differences in classification practices make the proportion of special needs students in charters appear smaller.”

    And where Gabor writes:
    “While Boston charters outshine public schools on test scores, graduates of Boston public schools are more likely to graduate from college than do their charter counterparts, according to the Boston Opportunity Agenda 2015 annual report card, which is funded by, among others, the pro-charter Boston Foundation.”

    That’s mistaken, understandably so. The report card she cites was somewhat confusing.

    On page 17 of the 2015 Boston Opportunity Agenda report card there is a table labeled “College Completion Rates for High School Graduates”. But examining the data presented in the text, one finds it should instead have read “College Completion Rates for High School Graduates who Subsequently Enrolled in College.” And not only did a considerably higher percentage of the charter school student cohort graduate high school within 5 years (81% vs 65%), but of those graduates, a considerably higher percentage enrolled in college.

    The key sentences in the report which most likely present the data properly are these:
    For BPS students, “Of the students who entered 9th grade in 2002, 65% completed high school in five years, only 34% enrolled in college, and only 17% obtained a degree within six years of the date they should have graduated from high school.” (page 16)

    Note that 50% college completion of the 34% who were college enrollees = 17%

    For Boston charter school students: “The cohort of 9th-graders that started in 2002 performed slightly better than those in BPS. Of the students who entered the 9th grade in 2002, 81% completed high school in five years, 60% enrolled in college, and 25% had a postsecondary degree within six years of high school graduation.” (page 17)

    Note that 42% college completion of the 60% who were college enrollees = 25%

    If one were to do the calculation for all the high school graduates (to achieve the numbers that Gabor was striving to present), rather than for just the college enrollees, I think the proper figures would be: 26% of BPS graduates in that cohort completed college (.26*65=17) as contrasted with 31% of the charter school graduates (.31*81=25) who completed college.

    The more recent 2016 figures Boston Opportunity Agenda Report Card figures showed an even greater disparity with an even higher relative % of charter school students going on to graduate college compared with the BPS students.

    It’s worth noting that the anti-charter Massachusetts Save Our Schools group continues to cite older Report Card and cite it inaccurately, prominently in their literature even long after being informed that they are presenting the data incorrectly.

    • aagabor says:

      Regarding ELLs, the MIT findings are at odds with those of Cara Stillings of the very pro-charter Pioneer Institute who shows that ELL enrollment in Boston public schools is 17 points higher than in Boston charters. Perhaps part of the discrepancy has to do with the fact that the MIT study looks only at elementary and middle schools, not high schools. Its worth noting that the MIT study excludes charter schools that account for 14 percent of all charter school enrollments for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the schools “declined to participate” or “had insufficient records.”

      Regarding high school graduation and college completion rates, the numbers in the study ARE confusing: Boston public high schools graduated 66% of their students in four years against 74 percent for charter schools. But it’s the public-school college completion numbers that are particularly impressive: “Since the baseline class of 2000, the percentage of [public-school] students who complete a college degree or other postsecondary credential within six years of high-school graduation has grown from 35% to 50%.” By contrast, Boston charter-school students were completing college at the rate of 42% during the same period. Then, and here’s where it gets particularly confusing, the same study says that “the cohort of 9th-graders that started in 2002 performed slightly better than those in BPS.”

      Whichever way you look at it, as the study itself notes: “Boston Public High Schools are making tremendous progress on college completion.” They are at least holding their own against charters schools. The success of the Boston public schools is particularly noteworthy given that so many boys disappear from charter schools by the time they reach their senior year.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Stephen B Ronan says:

        “Regarding ELLs, the MIT findings are at odds with those of Cara Stillings”

        Are you perhaps comparing apples and apple pie? Setren’s graphs in Figure A2 labeled “Figure A2: English Language Learner Prevalence in Charters and Boston Public Schools” represent the “percent of students with ELL status at the time of the lottery… Using the ELL status at the time of the lottery ignores any post-lottery changes to classification.” Whereas Cara Stilling Candal speaks about how many students remain classified ELL at later points in time as reflected in enrollment data. Setren explains that the disparate incidence that Stillings Candal alludes to derives in large part from differences in classification practices and language acquisition success rather than differences in the nature of the kids entering the schools. As she says, “Charter enrollment nearly doubles the likelihood that a student in special education at the time of the lottery loses this classification by the beginning of the following school year. Moreover, charters are three times as likely to remove an ELL classification… These differences in classification practices make the proportion of special needs students in charters appear smaller.”

        A little hyperbolic analogy to see if we can get on the same page:

        10 ELL kids enroll in 9th grade at Freedom High.
        10 ELL kids enroll in 9th grade at Problem Prep.

        By the end of 9th grade all those kids at Problem Prep are reading proficiently and are no longer classified as ELL as they enter 10th grade. In 10th grade those 10 kids who entered Freedom High are still classified as ELL.

        Charter school enthusiasts and critics look at studies of 10th graders, find much higher ELA test scores at Problem Prep. Critics say yeah well that’s because there’s a lot more ELL students in 10th grade at Freedom High. Ten versus zero. Charter school enthusiasts sigh, roll their numerate eyes, and go buy another round of Uber.

        You write, starting by quoting the 2015 Report Card:
        “‘Since the baseline class of 2000, the percentage of [public-school] students who complete a college degree or other postsecondary credential within six years of high-school graduation has grown from 35% to 50%.’ By contrast, Boston charter-school students were completing college at the rate of 42% during the same period.”

        I’ll feel more confident that we understand that Report Card the same way, if we keep focus on the underlying numbers rather than the accompanying verbiage, which occasionally slips off track.

        Seems there there may have been some contributing to the report with a scholarly understanding of “college completion rates” as the percentage of just those who enroll in college, and other editors/layout personnel without that understanding who started alluding to the same numbers as if they represented the percentage of all students in the cohort or all who became HS graduates…

        Again, that 50% you allude in respect to Boston Public Schools (BPS) derives from the fraction with post secondary degrees divided just by those who enrolled in those degree programs: 17%/34% = 50% for BPS and 25%/60% = 42% for charter schools.

        And the more recent 2016 numbers remain the same at 17%/34% = 50% for BPS but changed to 35%/69% = 51% for charter schools
        https://www.tbf.org/~/media/TBFOrg/Files/Reports/BOA%20Annual%202016_FinalREV15th2.pdf

        Those figures all derive from DESE graduation data and we could legitimately argue with that data, but that’s a very different route…

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  7. Pingback: UPDATE: Brockton’s Charter Fiasco Continues As Controversial School Prepares to Leave Town | Andrea Gabor

  8. David Powelstock says:

    Updated link to Setren paper (Mr. Ronan’s seems to be broken): https://seii.mit.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/SEII-Discussion-Paper-2015.05-Setren1.pdf

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