Fear the Win-Win!

March 25, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

At the beginning of a very kind column praising my new report on the empirical evidence on vouchers, Jay Mathews indicates that for some strange reason, he’s afraid of me and my school-choice posse:

Do I really want to get beaten bloody again by school vouchers devotees?

Come on, Jay. I’m not a dangerous man. I would never beat anyone bloody. I’m soft and harmless. I’m a perfectly ordinary bunny rabbit. A cute, fluffy, harmless bunny rabbit.

Well, okay, I have been known to bite. With big, sharp, pointy teeth. But just to stretch my repertoire, I’ll take the soft approach this time.

Jay acknowledges the evidence:

Greg Forster, a talented and often engagingly contrarian senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, has expanded a previous study to show that nearly all the research on vouchers, including some using the gold standard of random assignment, has good news for those who believe in giving parents funds that can be used to put their children in private schools. Students given that chance do better in private schools than similar students do in public schools, the research shows. Public schools who are threatened by the loss of students to private schools because of voucher programs improve more than schools that do not have to worry about that competition, the research also shows.

Yet he thinks we shouldn’t support vouchers because . . . well, I’ll let him explain:

I see nothing morally, economically or politically wrong with vouchers. I have never thought that they drained public schools of vital resources. I think a low-income family that gets the chance to choose a private school that suits their child should do so.

But I think such programs have limited growth potential because there are never going to be nearly enough empty spaces in private schools to help all the students who need them. Forster and other voucher advocates say this will change when voucher programs become universal. Then, entrepreneurs will be able to convince investors that they can create a new generation of private schools with the new wave of voucher students.

I think they are wrong about that. The young educators who have led the robust growth of charters prefer to work in public schools. Many voters will continue to resist sending their tax dollars to private schools, particularly with the pressures to cut back government spending that are likely to be with us for many years.

So that’s two arguments. Entrepreneurial startups won’t attract talented education refomers, and voters won’t support the programs.

It’s true that the leading-edge school reformers, the people Matt calls “the cool kids,” prefer to work in public schools. As I’ve written before, you can already see how that strategic choice is leading to dead end after dead end. The school choice movement needs to start building bridges to these people and showing them that in the long run, only school choice can provide the institutional support they need to sustain the kind of reforms they want.

As for politics, school choice has always polled well (for a discussion of the research and methodological issues, see here). The American people are not, in fact, uncomfortable with allowing religious institutions to participate in publicly funded programs on equal terms alongside other institutions. There was a time when they were (see “amendments, Blaine”) but that bigotry has receded.

Oh, and as for pressure to cut spending, school choice saves money. Tons and tons of it. That has always been one of our biggest assets in the political fight – that’s why the Foundation for Educational Choice produces state-focused fiscal studies year after year, to show each state how school choice would save taxpayer money while delivering better education.

The political obstacle to choice has never been the public at large. It has always been the blob, with its huge piles of cash fleeced indirectly from taxpayers, and (perhaps more important) its phalanx of highly disciplined volunteers and voters. A minority of the voters can control the outcome if they are single-issue voters when the rest of the public takes into account the whole panoply of problems confronting the body politic. And when you threaten to derail a gravy train, it tends to make the passengers into single-issue voters.

But the tide is changing. The cynical selfishness of the blob is more and more visible to more and more people. Reform has already won the war of ideas. That does not mean the ground war is won. The unions are still big, rich, and powerful. But they are no longer sacred. They have lost their mystique. No one thinks the unions speak for kids anymore; no one even thinks the unions speak for teachers anymore. And in the end, that’s what counts.

As Jay has put it, the unions are now the tobacco lobby. Or, as I have put it, they’re Bull Connor. That’s why school choice is now poised for a series of big political wins.

Jay is skeptical – pointing to the greater success of charters, he thinks vouchers won’t make big gains this cycle. As readers of JPGB know, the answer to the charter argument is that vouchers make the world safe for charters. As for whether vouchers make big gains this year, we’re about to find out.

Tell you what, Jay. Let’s make a bet. You say there won’t be “a wave of pro-voucher votes across the country.” Me and my posse at FEC will go back and count up the number of school choice bills (private choice, not charters) that passed state chambers in 2008-2010. Then we’ll set a mutually agreed on bar for the number of voucher bills passing chambers this year. If we hit the bar, you have to buy me dinner at a Milwaukee restaurant of my choice. But if we don’t hit the bar, I buy you dinner at a DC restaurant of your choice. That’s pretty lopsided in your favor, dollar-wise. How about it?


Vouchers Are a Win-Win Solution – Updated Edition

March 23, 2011

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Foundation for Educational Choice has just released my new report, “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Vouchers.” It’s an updated edition of my 2009 report providing a comprehensive overview of, well, the empirical evidence on school vouchers. In addition to incorporating new studies, this edition also expands the scope. The first edition only looked at the evidence on how vouchers impact public schools; this new edition also includes how vouchers impact the students who use them.

As before, I summarize the research with one striking chart. Or, now, two charts – one on how vouchers impact participants, and the other on how they impact public schools:


(Note: This image has been corrected; an earlier version transposed Milwaukee and Florida in Table 2. I apologize for the error.)

I’m not sure I can improve on what I wrote here on JPGB when I posted the first edition two years ago:

Worth a thousand words, isn’t it? I mean, at what point are we allowed to say that people are either lying, or have been hoodwinked by other people’s lies, when they say that the research doesn’t support a positive impact from vouchers on public schools?

There’s always room for more research. What would we all do with our time if there weren’t? But on the question of what the research we now have says, the verdict is not in dispute.

The report surveys all the random-assignment research on participants, and all the research (using all methods) on public school impacts. Readers of JPGB are probably familiar with the reason for this difference: random assignment is so far superior to other methods that when a large body of random assignment research exists, it ought to be given priority. However, since it’s not possible to do random-assignment research on how vouchers impact public schools, we have to cast a wider net – and the research methods being used in this field have been improving over time. Yet the results have remained consistent – how about that?

Here’s the executive summary of the new report:

This report collects the results of all available empirical studies using the best available scientific methods to measure how school vouchers affect academic outcomes for participants, and all available studies on how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Contrary to the widespread claim that vouchers do not benefit participants and hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and public schools. In addition to helping the participants by giving them more options, there are a variety of explanations for why vouchers might improve public schools as well. The most important is that competition from vouchers introduces healthy incentives for public schools to improve.

Key findings include:

  • Ten empirical studies have used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.
  • Nineteen empirical studies have examined how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Of these studies, 18 find that vouchers improved public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical studies find that vouchers harm public schools.
  • Every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.
  • Only one study, conducted in Washington D.C., found no visible impact from vouchers. This is not surprising, since the D.C. voucher program is the only one designed to shield public schools from the impact of competition. Thus, the D.C. study does not detract from the research consensus in favor of a positive effect from voucher competition.
  • The benefits provided by existing voucher programs are sometimes large, but are usually more modest in size. This is not surprising since the programs themselves are modest — curtailed by strict limits on the students they can serve, the resources they provide, and the freedom to innovate. Only a universal voucher program could deliver the kind of dramatic improvement our public schools so desperately need.

Wonk Action Shots!

January 27, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I just returned from a series of events put on by the Kansas Policy Institute and the Foundation for Educational Choice. Long suffering readers of JPGB might possibly recognize the topic if they turn their intuitive discernment nob to “11”:

Need another hint? Well, okay….

I met great people in Kansas, and had them ask very good questions. The NAEP shows that on average Kansas schools are good when compared to American states. The scores for disadvantaged student populations, including the growing Hispanic population, must improve if Kansas is going to go from good to GREAT.

Story in the Wichta Eagle here and a television news report here.

Reason TV

January 24, 2011

I don’t find much on regular TV that I want to watch, especially since Lost went off the air.  But there is almost always new, exciting stuff on Reason TV, especially when I’m on it.

Education Savings Accounts Duel in Florida

January 20, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Look for the Goldwater Institute study on using Education Savings Accounts as a vehicle for school choice next week. Meanwhile, they are already dueling over the concept in Florida. In this corner, Patricia Levesque from the Foundation for Excellence in Education represents the good guys with Let the Parents Choose.

In the opposing corner, representing the good but misguided faction, Betty Castor with Don’t Endanger Our Schools.

Notice the difference in emphasis regarding students vs. schools.

Those of us who support a fundamental overhaul of our system of schooling have a great deal of work to do to get people to understand that the methods of public schooling are fundamentally at odds with the ideals of public schooling. If you had to start from scratch, who in their right mind would order up the system we have today? Castor is right that Florida public schools have made a great deal of progress, and no one enjoys celebrating it more than me. It bears mentioning however that many of the people working Florida’s public school system fought the changes that produced those gains tooth and nail.

They were **ahem** completely wrong last time, but never mind that, this idea is dangerous so everyone run to your corners and Let’s Do the (2002) Timewarp Again!!!!

A decade ago, Florida’s public school establishment and their many willing accomplices in more than a few Florida newspapers were busily throwing up a firestorm over Governor Jeb Bush’s reforms. We all know how that ended: with Florida’s low-income, Hispanic and Black students outscoring statewide averages on NAEP.  Before we give any credence to the Little-Boy-Who-Cried-Wolf crowd, note that Florida has been offering children with disabilities all of their state money in the form of a voucher since 1999. Last year, 5% of children with disabilities utilized the program. That’s right- only 5% after a decade.

What do we know about the program? Participating parents love it and scores for children with disabilities are way up in Florida in part because of competition from the program. Oh, and it helps curb mislabelling of children into special education.

Ummmm…..where is the apocalypse? The mad rush for the exits? The terrible harm to schools and students?

The magic of the McKay program, and choice more generally, is that you don’t actually have to use it to benefit from it. Parents of children with disabilities now have the ability to walk with their feet if they think their school has served their child poorly, or that another school would do a better. The fact that only 5% of parents have actually pulled the trigger doesn’t matter much because all parents have the potential ability to pull the trigger. There are constraints, of course, most notably the availability of private options, but you get the point.

Nationwide, 2% of children with disabilities attend private schools at school district expense. Generally speaking, they were the kids with parents who had the ability to hire fancy attorneys who specialize in federal disability law. Sometimes these kids have successfully sued the district to get to a private school, sometimes a consensual agreement is reached for a private placement. Sometimes it is consensual, and other times it is “consensual” in the sense that districts are pretty good at figuring out when they would lose a lawsuit and cut their losses.

In any case, McKay gives parents who don’t have fancy lawyers power- the power to leave. McKay children stopped being a largely captive audience and became more like a client- a client you can lose if you fail to satisfy them.

This is what the education savings account concept is about: power for parents. The customer is King, and I want to give parents as close to full sovereignty over the education of their child as possible, down to the penny. This goes well beyond whether I should have choice over whether I send my child to a charter or a district school, or a private or district school. The idea is to allow every parent to customize an education for their child based upon their unique needs and interests from as wide an array of education service providers as possible: whether from public schools, private schools, virtual schools, private tutors, trade schools or colleges and university courses. Parents should be able to judge opportunity costs and cost-effectiveness, and save money over time for university expenses.

Would this spell the end of public schools? Hardly- did McKay end public schooling for children with disabilities? Yes but if McKay gave options beyond private schools, maybe 10% of students may have left instead of 5%!


Would it change education savings accounts change the way schools operate? Yes- for the better.

What about equity concerns? Give disadvantaged children greater funding weights than the current public school funding system.  Can anyone seriously justify $1,500 from the feds as making a serious dent in the role poverty plays in education, especially when often only half of it reaches the classroom? Who wants to stand up to defend a system of school funding which covertly gives far more to the children with the most, cleverly disguised in district averages? Can we really go on ignoring the abject failure of state funding equity lawsuits without seriously revamping the broken power structures of urban districts which often absorbed massive amounts of additional funds without producing significant improvement?

We can do much better than this- and putting parents in charge is the right way to do it.

New Grad Rate Study in Milwaukee

January 10, 2011

School Choice Wisconsin has released a new study by the University of Minnesota’s John Robert Warren of graduation rates for the voucher and public school systems in Milwaukee.  Here’s the highlight from the release:

Based on seven years of data, Professor Warren estimates that the graduation rate for students in Milwaukee’s choice program was about 18% higher than for students in MPS.  Had MPS achieved the same graduation rate as students in the MPCP, an additional 3,939 Milwaukee students would have graduated from 2003 to 2009.  Based on findings in separate research reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the annual impact from these additional graduates would have been about $4.2 million in extra tax revenue and $24.9 million in additional personal income.

Warren’s research shows a general pattern of growth in Milwaukee graduation rates.  From 2003 to 2009 the MPS rate grew from 49% to 70%.  For the MPCP the rate grew from 63% to 82%.

Of course, this is not a causal analysis.  We do not know (and the study does not claim) that the higher grad rate among voucher students is caused by the program.  A forthcoming analysis by the University of Arkansas’  School Choice Demonstration Project, led by my colleague, Patrick Wolf,  should be able to address that issue.

But the this descriptive report is nevertheless encouraging.  Not only do voucher students graduate at higher rates than MPS students, but both sectors have been improving their graduation rates.  That finding is consistent with a scenario in which choice and competition are improving outcomes for all students — public and private — in Milwaukee.


Jeb Kicks Off the New Year Right

January 3, 2011

Jeb Bush has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that gets the new year off to the right start.  Here’s a taste:

For the last decade, Florida has graded schools on a scale of A to F, based solely on standardized test scores. When we started, many complained that “labeling” a school with an F would demoralize students and do more harm than good. Instead, it energized parents and the community to demand change from the adults running the system. School leadership responded with innovation and a sense of urgency. The number of F schools has since plummeted while the number of A and B schools has quadrupled.

Another reform: Florida ended automatic, “social” promotion for third-grade students who couldn’t read. Again, the opposition to this hard-edged policy was fierce. Holding back illiterate students seemed to generate a far greater outcry than did the disturbing reality that more than 25% of students couldn’t read by the time they entered fourth grade. But today? According to Florida state reading tests, illiteracy in the third grade is down to 16%.

Rewards and consequences work. Florida schools that earn an A or improve by a letter grade are rewarded with cash—up to $100 per pupil annually. If a public school doesn’t measure up, families have an unprecedented array of other options: public school choice, charter schools, vouchers for pre-K students, virtual schools, tax-credit scholarships, and vouchers for students with disabilities.

Choice is the catalytic converter here, accelerating the benefits of other education reforms. Almost 300,000 students opt for one of these alternatives, and research from the Manhattan Institute, Cornell and Harvard shows that Florida’s public schools have improved in the face of competition provided by the many school-choice programs.

Florida’s experience busts the myth that poverty, language barriers, absent parents and broken homes explain failure in school. It is simply not true. Our experience also proves that leadership, courage and an unwavering commitment to reform—not demographics or demagoguery—will determine our destiny as a nation.

Does Parent Trigger Cut the Gordian Knot?

December 8, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The editorial in yesterday’s Journal covering the “parent trigger” earthquake in Los Angeles – at McKinley Elementary in Compton – argues that this could be a revolutionary new mechanism for advancing parental control of schools:

The biggest obstacle to education reform has long been overcoming the inertial forces of unionized bureaucracy. Parent trigger is a revolutionary shortcut, and bravo to the parents in Compton for making the leap.

The model is set to spread, argue the editors:

Parent trigger has support from Democrats including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee and even Rahm Emanuel now that he’s running for mayor of Chicago. Legislators in Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, West Virginia and Maryland tell us they will introduce versions of parent trigger in the coming months.

Last time I looked in on the state of school governance reform in LA, I was skeptical. But that was more than a year ago, when the parent trigger mechanism wasn’t yet a part of the reform package. Last fall they were setting themselves up to have the public system hire private managers – which hasn’t worked in the past.

The parent trigger model is different. At a school that hasn’t made Adequate Yearly Progress ™ four years running, get a majority of parents to sign a petition and you can close the school, change administrators, or turn over the school to charter operators. The key difference is that the parents signing the petition decide what happens.

The district will fight them in court, of course, and they may win on a bogus technicality. As we learned in Florida in 2006, when the unions demand obeisance from their slaves you can’t count on a court to follow even the most tranparently clear meaning of the letter and spirit of the law.

But that’s not really relevant to the real policy question. All school reform policies are exposed to the naked assertion of thuggish power from union-bootlicking judges, and I don’t see much reason to think this one is more exposed (at least in principle) than any others.

So, that aside, is the Journal right that parent trigger is a way to cut the Gordian knot? Here are the advantages and disadvantages as I see them.


  1. School choice as a consequence of school failure is a proven way to improve public school performance. Even where the threat is never actualized, the mere threat produces clear gains.
  2. The parent trigger system may overcome the serious procedural obstacles that have dogged other “failing schools” models. The system for activating choice is (with an exception I’ll discuss below) simple, clear and not under the control of the government bureaucracy – and informing parents about their choices is easier because the system for creating choices involves getting parents informed and involved.
  3. The system is politically attractive, and partly for the right reasons. If a majority of the actual parents in the school want the school handed over, it’s really hard to be the people who say it shouldn’t be handed over.


  1. For the moment, the system is only promoting management change, at best involving charter operators, which is an improvement but is inadequate. But that’s less important because you could always use a parent trigger to activate vouchers.
  2. Petitions carry some problematic issues as a vehicle. Phrasing can be unclear, and/or people may not understand what they’re signing. Worse, the blob could organize its own counter-petitions to create confusion. It’s unlikely they could actually seize control of a school this way, but they could disrupt the process.
  3. More seriously, the system is only available at a small number of schools (those that don’t make AYP four years running). You could always fight to expand that, but the question is how far you could expand it. In theory you could do a parent trigger everywhere, but it’s not clear whether that would be politically viable. Maybe it would be if you did it in the right state. The larger question here is how wedded we are to a “failing schools” model that assumes schools are only failing if they’re populated by kids who are poor and dark-skinned. It’s an important question whether the parent trigger could be used to transition to a “failing schools” model that says any school repudiated by its parents is a failing school, or if it only reinforces the worst of our existing prejudices about what constitutes educational failure.
  4. Along a smiliar line, in its current form the parent trigger (like all previous “failing schools” models) reinforces government’s right to decide what constitutes a good education, because it relies on state testing as a parent-choice gatekeeper. In addition to my recent movement toward stronger critique of accountability testing for what are essentially pedagogical reasons, on an even more basic level it’s imperative that we not validate the idea that a good education is what government says it is. This, and #3 above, are what I meant when I said that parent trigger is politically attractive “partly” for the right reason. 
  5. Carrying on the theme of #3 and #4, most Americans wrongly believe there’s nothing wrong with their own schools; after all, the kids are middle-class whites and the schools are run by the government – nice, clean suburban government, not those icky urban machines – so how bad could they be? So suppose you give everyone a parent trigger and don’t get enough schools where you overcome all the obstacles of perception (to say nothing of the logistics) and get a majority to sign off. That would only validate the illusion that the status quo in the great suburban Middle America is A-OK.

So color me ambivalent. Parent trigger is certainly an improvement over Florida’s A+ model, where near-insuperable bureaucratic obstacles stood between parents and the actual excercise of choice. And I see some potential to use this as a path to making parents’ judgments the standard for what counts as a good school. But there are serious dangers here as well, if we don’t take seriously the omnipresent temptation to slide back toward liberal paternalism.

School Choice Works in Oklahoma

October 18, 2010

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

No, I’m not referring to the state’s brand new voucher program. I’ve got a piece in today’s Oklahoman on how the evidence consistently shows school choice works.

The Determined Pessimism of Rick and Mike

September 23, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My friends Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess have been either (a) cautioning people about becoming overly optimistic about Waiting for Superman  and our ability to improve K-12 outcomes or (b) ridiculing the idea completely.


Let me begin by saying that I am no starry-eyed naif when it comes to the possible impact of the film. I wrote the other day that I am starting to entertain the idea that it might be a big deal. Union reactionaries do find themselves increasingly isolated in K-12 policy discussions, and many of their catspaws will be turned out of office in November.

Let me say in advance however that the unions are not going anywhere. They still control hundreds of millions of dollars, legions of organized activists and all the lobbyists that they care to employ. I’m not claiming that a tipping point has been achieved and it is all downhill from here for them, merely that they are in for what could prove to be a sizeable rough patch.

Where I seem to differ with Mike and Rick is with their seeming determined pessimism regarding the realm of the possible for improvement. Rick and I appeared on a panel together at the State Policy Network a couple of weeks ago, and discussed the same issue.

Readers of this blog find themselves subjected to my battering away with Florida’s NAEP scores on a regular basis. I won’t bother going into the litany because you already know it, so let’s take a couple of other examples where real reform agendas have been instituted, and what has been going on with their NAEP scores.

I pick a couple because, well, only a few exist. You have to be in a position to roll the establishment to do these things, and keep them rolled. Very few have pulled that off. However, the results are encouraging.

I am encouraged that New York City now outscores some statewide averages on NAEP, despite a student body that is 84 percent minority and 85% FRL eligible. NYC kids scored 217 on 4th grade reading in 2009, only 206 in 2002. That’s a meaningful difference, and should embolden Chancellor Klein.

Likewise, DCPS is still an academic blight, but has made substantial progress since the mid 1990s. When my coauthors and I tracked the learning gains of general education low-income students for the 50 states and DC from 2003 to 2009 in all four main NAEP subjects, Florida came in with the biggest gains and DC came in with the second largest gains. Coincidence? I doubt it- both Florida and DC have engaged in far-reaching reforms.

MA is justifiably proud of having the nation’s highest NAEP scores accompanying their standards-led reforms. It has been mentioned before that the usual suspects fiercely opposed their adoption.

Notice that there is no one path up the mountain here-but there are some common threads to the reforms: testing, accountability, choice. So maybe I’m like Ronald Reagan and I just think that there has got to be a pony somewhere in all that manure. It seems to me, however, that there is a pattern here: in the limited number of instances when jurisdictions take control of policy away from the reactionaries, keep it away from them for a sustained period, and implement reforms that they hate, NAEP scores make substantial improvement.

My own experience in interacting with lawmakers, candidates and philanthropists around the country is that they almost all like substantial improvement in NAEP scores. It doesn’t matter whether they are on the right or left or center. The funny thing is that everyone but those directly benefiting from the status-quo seem to not only want improvement, many of them are willing to fight for it.

So have we “cracked the code.” Yes, as a matter of fact, I think a few places have done so. Yes with fantastic difficulty and always imperiled sustainability. The success of reformers is limited and fragile, but very real. If the third largest state in the union doesn’t represent “results at scale” then what pray tell does? 

We have learned a great deal over the past 20 years. Our decisions are being guided less by theory and more by experience. Less and less this is less about “Assume a can opener” and more and more about “You know, they did something like that in X, let’s see what we can learn about the results.”

If throwing money at schools, lowering class sizes, expanding preschool, open classrooms, whole language or <fill in the blank here> had produced these types of results, this blog would not exist. There would be no need for an education reform cottage industry, and no one would donate to it. They failed. It’s too bad, because I would much rather be spending my life an executive at Rhino Records putting together compliation CD’s of punk rock bands covering all of Dean Martin’s greatest hits. The cover would have a guy in a tux holding up a martini above a violent mosh pit.

A’int Love a Kick in the Head? Oi….let me demonstrate! But I digress…

Our ideas have barely been tried, and very rarely in sustained concert with each other. Unless someone is able to demonstrate the Florida NAEP, the DCPS NAEP, and the Trial Urban District Assessment NAEP for NYC and Miami have all been cooked, the only reasonable conclusion to reach is that unions hate policies that succeed in substantially improving the education of children.

There have been and will continue to be misteps. There will be gains and losses along the way. This is a war, and war is hell. The unions are not going away, but neither are we nor the evidence of our successes. As Dino’s pally Frank used to say, the best is yet to come.

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