Ed Week on Distorted Special Ed Counts

March 15, 2012

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Ed Week dives into details on the difficult issue of how special education counts get distorted by a variety of factors. The article gets into a lot of interesting issues that make it difficult to get a clear picture of how many disabled students are served by the program. See also here for the researchers’ take on the issue.

One factor not canvassed in the Ed Week story – unsurprisingly – is the role of financial incentives in public school special education programs. Public schools are incentivized to label studnets as disabled in order to access additional funding. Study after study after study after study has confirmed the empirical relationship between the presence and strength of these incentives and rising rates of special education diagnosis in public schools. Private schools have no such distorting incentive and will thus report lower numbers of disabled students. (All this is true regardless of whether you think the true rate of disabilities is higher, as in the public system, or somewhat lower, as in the private system.)

Look Who’s Standing in the Schoolhouse Door Now

October 18, 2010

The Oklahoma legislature and its Democratic Governor adopted a law allowing disabled students to use public funds to attend a private school if they wished to do so.  Similar laws have been passed in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Utah, and Arizona.

Disabled students have had to fight for decades to receive an adequate education from the public school system.  Federal legislation, now called IDEA, was adopted in the mid-1970s to ensure an appropriate eduction for disabled students.  Unfortunately, having a legal right to something and actually receiving it are two very different things and many disabled students continue to be denied appropriate services despite their legal entitlements.

That’s why several states have decided to empower families with disabled children with an additional mechanism by which they could ensure receiving an appropriate education — special education vouchers that would allow them to transfer to private schools if they believe that the public schools are not serving them adequately.  Oklahoma is the latest state to offer these vouchers but it almost certainly won’t be the last as several other states are considering the idea.  And there is good evidence that special education vouchers are significantly improving outcomes.

But, according to Education Week, four Oklahoma school districts have decided not to offer these vouchers that are required by state law.  The reasons given for willfully disobeying the state law are varied.  One district, Broken Arrow, has suggested that the voucher laws violate the state’s constitution because funds would go to religious schools.

Besides the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court and several states have ruled that these vouchers would not pose this type of constitutional threat, apparently public school district officials in Oklahoma think they know better.  And they’ve discovered some new constitutional process by which school officials interpret the constitution rather than the courts.

Actually, it’s not really a new method of deciding who should interpret the constitution, since it was a method well-established by segregationist school officials and governors who believed that they had the power to block black students from exercising their civil rights no matter what the law or courts said.  Now it is disabled students who are being blocked at the schoolhouse door.

The willingness of public school officials to publicly flaunt their disobedience of the law is not even very unique in current times.  Just two years ago school officials in Georgia decided to disobey the state’s duly enacted social promotion policy simply because they disagreed with the policy. Some of the Oklahoma public school officials similarly believe that they have standing as educators to decide what is best for kids and formulate the policy regardless of what the law and the people who pay them say.

Public school officials get away with this kind of willful violation of the law far too easily.  No one will go to jail.  No one will lose their job.  No one will be sanctioned in any way.  And they wonder why having a law to ensure appropriate services for disabled students isn’t sufficient.  Maybe it’s because public school officials apparently don’t have to follow the law.

The Argument Clinic

January 5, 2010

Stuart Buck and I have a post over on the Education Next Blog addressing a letter that Sara Mead of the New America Foundation wrote in response to our article on special education vouchers.

Here’s a taste of our response:

Sara Mead’s letter almost feels like the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic.” She’s just contradicting us, not providing an actual argument with contrary evidence.

Of course, she could just say that she isn’t.

Tampa Tribune Op-Ed

September 3, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have an op-ed in this morning’s Tampa Tribune on how Florida’s McKay voucher program for special education students has restrained the spiraling growth in special education enrollments in public schools.  We write:

In Florida, as in most other states, schools receive additional funding for each student identified as disabled. Often, these additional resources are greater than the actual cost of providing special-education services, giving schools a financial incentive to increase their diagnoses.

The financial incentive to misdiagnose is particularly apparent when classifying students as having a specific learning disability (SLD). That’s because SLD is the most common, the most ambiguous, and the least costly category of special education. In many cases, school officials might simply be trying to get extra resources to help struggling students. But the net effect is the misclassification of a huge number of students as having an SLD.

The McKay program reduces the financial incentive for Florida’s schools to misdiagnose learning disabilities by placing revenue at risk whenever a student is placed into special education…

In our new study, we found as the number of nearby, McKay-accepting private schools increases, the probability that a public school will identify a student as having an SLD decreases significantly. The program reduced the probability that a fourth-, fifth-, or sixth-grader in a school facing the average number of nearby private options was diagnosed as SLD by about 15 percent.

The Special Ed DC Bubble

August 23, 2009

One of the (many) problems with education policy analysts is that a large number of them live in or around Washington, D.C. 

D.C. is a remarkably abnormal place.  Because of the giant distortions of the presence and subsidies from the federal government as well as the atypical set of people who live in that area, policy experiences in DC are very often quite different from the experiences in the rest of the country. 

The problem is that people tend to generalize from their immediate experiences.  If something happens to you, you hear about it from people you know, or you read about it in your local paper, you tend to think that’s the way it is for everyone.  So, DC education analysts are always at-risk of drawing policy conclusions based on incredibly atypical experiences.

For a prime example see Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead’s thoughts on special education vouchers:

In fact, if special education identification led to funding for private school attendance, it would be unusual if this did not create an incentive to participate in special education in many communities, particularly those with low-performing public schools. For example, Washington, D.C., and New York City currently contend with substantial abuse of special education by affluent parents. In addition, there are reports of parents seeking to have their students diagnosed with learning disabilities in order to gain accommodations on the SAT or for other reasons. [fn 27] 

For another example, listen to Amber Winkler, Mike Petrilli, and Rick Hess discuss our most recent study on special education vouchers (it starts around minute 11:00).  They generally do a good job of describing the study but they express doubts about our findings because they believe that parents, especially affluent parents, have considerable influence over special education placements.

On what basis do these D.C. education analysts believe that a significant number of parents, especially affluent parents, are gaming the special education diagnostic system to get access to advantageous accommodations or expensive private placements?  The evidence Andy and Sara provide in footnote 27 consists largely of newspaper accounts from Washington, D.C..  Mike and Rick provide no source and we can only assume that they are drawing upon their immediate experiences.

Of course, the antidote to mistaken generalizations from our limited and potentially distorted set of immediate experiences is the reliance on systematic data.  If we step back and look at the broad evidence, we can avoid some of the easy mistakes that result from assuming that everyone’s experience is like ours.  As it turns out, DC is a gigantic outlier.

School officials, not parents, make the determination of whether a student has a particular disability and what accommodations are necessary.  Parents are entitled to challenge the decisions of school officials, but they rarely do and even more rarely win those challenges. 

In the fall of 2007 there were 6,718,203 students receiving special education services between the ages of 3 and 21.  And that year there was a grand total of 14,834 disputes from parents resolved by a hearing or agreement prior to completion of a hearing (see Table 7-3).  That’s about .2% of special education cases that are disputed by parents or 1 in 500.

And as Marcus Winters and I described in our new study, schools prevail in most of these disputes:

According to Mayes and Zirkel’s (2001) review of the literature, “schools prevailed in 63% of the due process hearings in which placement was the predominant issue.” In cases where the matter went beyond an administrative hearing and was actually brought to court, one study cited in Mayes and Zirkel’s review found that “schools prevailed in 54.3% of special education court cases,” which the authors say is in line with the findings of other studies. In suits seeking reimbursement for private school expenses (because a special-education voucher program is unavailable), Mayes and Zirkel found that “school districts won the clear majority (62.5%) of the decisions.

In addition, as Marcus Winters and I documented in a 2007 Education Next article, private placement is amazingly rare.  Using updated national numbers from the federal government, as of fall 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students ages 6 through 21 who were being educated in private schools at parental request and public expense.  That’s only 1.13% of the 6,007,832 disabled students ages 6 through 21 and barely one tenth of one percent of all public school students.  If private placement supports Andy and Sara’s claim of “substantial abuse of special education” we’d have to redefine “substantial” to include minuscule proportions of students.

The systematic evidence clearly shows that school officials dominate special education, parents rarely challenge school officials’ decisions, schools win most of those challenges from parents, and parents very rarely get their children placed in private schools at public expense. 

So, why do Andy, Sara, Rick, and Mike ( as well as all of those DC reporters who Andy and Sara cite) believe that parents, especially affluent parents, control special education decisions?  Well, perhaps it is because in D.C. parents do have much more control than in the rest of the country. 

Remember how there were 14,384 students nationwide who resolved a dispute with their school over special education in a hearing or by agreement prior to the completion of a hearing?  DC contained 2,689 of those 14,384, or about 18% (see Table 7-3).  But DC represents only .15% of total student enrollment nationwide.  That means parents in DC are about 120 times more likely to lodge these challenges than the typical parent nationwide.

And while private placement is very rare, it is somewhat less rare in DC.  Out of 67,729 students privately placed at parental request, 1,864 of them were in DC, or about 2.75% of the total.  Again, given that DC student enrollment represents only .15% of national enrollment, DC students are about 18 times more likely to receive a private placement than students nationwide.

It’s clear that DC is just different — very different.  Making generalizations from DC experiences or newspaper articles is like saying that Seattle is a sunny place if you happen to arrive there on a day when the sun was shining.

D.C. isn’t the only outlier.  New York is also pretty atypical when it comes to special education.  Dispute resolution hearings in New York state are about 7 times more common than in the rest of the country.  And private placements are almost 3 times more common in the state of New York than they are nationwide.

It’s too bad that so many of our media and policy elites live in these two atypical places because they are giving us a very distorted picture of special education.  They need to get outside of their bubbles and rely on systematic data rather than immediate experiences.

Great Minds Think Alike

August 19, 2009

Just as we released our new study on special education vouchers in Florida, Marc Thiessen and Michael O’Hanlon have a piece in USA Today advocating for the policy, specifically to help students with autism. 

Thiessen is a Republican and fellow at the Hoover Institution and O’Hanlon is a Democrat and fellow at the Brookings Institution.  Special education vouchers clearly appeal across party lines.  And since disabilities are distributed roughly evenly across all racial and economic groups, the programs can have a broad base of political support to be adopted and protected from destructive regulation or roll-back efforts.  One thing we are learning from urban voucher programs targeted at disadvantaged populations is that they are very hard to sustain politically.  The targeted groups are also the most politically powerless.

Special Ed Vouchers Restrain Growth in Disabilities

August 18, 2009

Marcus Winters and I have a super-awesome study released today by the Manhattan Institute.  It shows that offering disabled students special education vouchers reduces the likelihood that public schools will identify students as disabled.

This isn’t what Andy Rotherham and Sara Mead expected.  They claimed in a 2003 report for the Progress Policy Institute that: “special education vouchers may actually exacerbate the over-identification problem by creating a new incentive for parents to have children diagnosed with a disability in order to obtain a voucher.”

It didn’t. The reason special education vouchers restrained growth in disabilities, rather than exacerbate it, is that the vouchers check public schools’ financial incentives to identify more students as disabled.  Public schools may get additional subsidies when they shift more students into special education, but if they then make students eligible for special education vouchers, they risk having those students walk out the door with all of their funding.  It makes the public schools think twice before over-identifying disabilities for financial reasons.

And outside of the DC bubble, schools control the process of whether students are identified as disabled — not parents.  So, if we can check the positive financial incentives that public schools have for over-identifying disabilities, we can significantly slow growth in special education.

Nearly 1 in 7 students nationwide is now classified as having a disability.  That’s 63% more than three decades ago.  It’s clear that this huge increase in disabilities was not caused by a true increase in the incidence of disabilities in the population.  No plague has afflicted our children over the last three decades to disable two-thirds more of them.

Instead, non-medical factors have been driving special education enrollments higher.  Chief among these is the financial incentives we offer schools in most states to shift more students into special education by providing additional subsidies for each student classified as disabled.

Some states have reformed their special education funding formulas to end these financial rewards for higher special education rolls.  Greg and I reported in a 2002 study that states that continued to pay schools per student identified as disabled had much higher rates of growth in special education than states that had reformed their funding formulas.  Elizabeth Dhuey of the University of Toronto and Stephen Lipscomb of the Public Policy Institute of California have confirmed these findings.

Julie Cullen of UC San Diego has found that “fiscal incentives can explain over 35 percent of the recent growth in student disability rates in Texas.”  And Sally Kwak, a student of David Card at UC Berkeley and now a professor at U of Hawaii, finds a significant slow-down in special education enrollments when California reformed its funding system.

The new study Marcus and I released today builds upon this growing research by showing yet again that public schools strongly consider non-medical factors when deciding whether to classify students as disabled.  I don’t mean to suggest that all school officials are conscious of these incentives or acting with evil intention.  But it is clear that the system in which they operate and their actions are shaped by these financial incentives.

If we discovered that hospitals were filling their beds with healthy people who just felt a little tired in order to obtain additional government subsidies, we would be outraged and demand dramatic reforms.  Public schools are doing the same and it is time we get outraged and demand reforms.

JPG in CJ on SEV

July 29, 2009

Translation:  I have an article in the special summer issue of City Journal on special education vouchers.

Here is a taste:

Rather than compelling families with disabled children to contend with obstinate public school systems, we should give them the option of purchasing the services they need for their children from a private provider. That is, we should give them special-ed vouchers—good for the same amount of money that we already spend on them in the public school system—that they could then use to pay for private school. Not only would this bring better services to disabled New York students; it could also save the public money.

Many parents of disabled students have a lot of trouble ensuring that public schools give their kids an appropriate education. The parents have to know what they’re entitled to, and most do not. They must negotiate services from the local schools—but the schools are experienced in these negotiations, while the parents generally aren’t, so the schools often get away with minimizing their responsibilities. And even if parents win at the negotiating table, getting the schools actually to deliver on their promises is enormously difficult.

In the end, the only way to compel schools to keep their promises is for parents to engage in ongoing legal battles with the same people who take care of their kids each school day. Most parents have neither the resources nor the stomach to do that. Schools, on the other hand, see little downside in promising few services and delivering fewer. The worst that can happen is that courts will step in and order them to do what they were originally supposed to do; there are no punitive damages in special ed. Research by Perry Zirkel at Lehigh University also shows that courts tend to sympathize with school districts and that schools win most legal challenges from parents. And since children age, delays work to the schools’ advantage.

For all these reasons, most parents of disabled kids simply resign themselves to whatever the schools deliver—or fail to deliver.

Reaction To SC Decision on Special Ed

June 29, 2009

Reactions are beginning to pour in on the Forest Grove School District v. T.A. Supreme Court decision, which Greg and I wrote about last week.  Predictably and unfortunately, those reactions are informed by concerns for the financial burdens of the decision that are lacking in both facts and perspective. 

Even the dissenting opinion, written by Souter and joined by Scalia and Thomas, made a point of worrying about the costs:

The majority’s suggestion overlooks the terms of the IDEA process, the substantial procedures protecting a child’s substantive rights under the IDEA, and the significant costs of its rule. To start with the costs, special education can be immensely expensive, amounting to tens of billions of dollars annually and as much as 20% of public schools’ general operating budgets. See Brief for Council of the Great City Schools as Amicus Curiae 22–23. The more private placement there is, the higher the special education bill, a fact that lends urgency to the IDEA’s mandate of a collaborative process in which an IEP is “developed jointly by a school official qualified in special education, the child’s teacher, the parents or guardian, and, where appropriate,the child.”Burlington, supra, at 368.

Just how much private placement is there?  How much does it really cost?  How big is this relative to total enrollment and expenditure in public schools?

As of 2007 there were 67,729 disabled students in private school at public expense who were there at the initiative of their parents.  That is 1.1% of the 5,978,081 students in special education and 0.14% of the 49,610,000 students in public education.  Theses percentages were not significantly different before 1997 when Congress amended the special education law in a way that the dissent believed would constrain burdensome private placements.  And Marcus Winters and I estimated that the total financial cost of private placement is less than a billion dollars and amounts to less than one-quarter of one percent of total public school spending

I understand that a billion dollars is a lot of money, but in a public education system spending more than $500 billion it is almost rounding error.  Souter, Scalia, and Thomas violate the Denominator Law, where it is required that all claims of “big” problems have to be put in perspective by including a denominator to show how large the problem really is given the full context.  As officers of the Court they should know that ignorance of the law is no excuse!

It’s also strange that Scalia and Thomas would join in a dissent that is based at least partially on concerns for the financial implications of their decisions.  I thought Scalia and Thomas believed in finding the original intent of the law.  A court ruling based on (false) fears of financial burdens of the law sounds like policymaking from the bench.

However, Debra Saunders, in a column on the decision at the San Francisco Chronicle, seems confused about what constitutes policymaking from the bench.  She writes: “the court arguably engages in policy-making when it tells districts how they must spend valuable education dollars.”  There is a federal law, IDEA, that tells schools how they must spend their money (along with the money they receive from the feds).  It says that all disabled students are entitled to a free appropriate public education.  It isn’t policymaking from the bench to say that students unreasonably denied appropriate services shouldn’t have to wait 2-3 years for the Courts to order the schools to provide those services.  The Courts can’t also provide a time machine, so we have to have a mechanism that handles what happens to kids while their parents fight with schools in the courts. 

In Forest Grove the Supreme Court said that parents should be able to take the risk of placing their children in private school and seeking reimbursement.  If the courts agree that the schools unreasonably denied services, then they can get reimbursed for their costs while they were waiting.  If the public schools were reasonable, then the parents are out the money. 

I agree with Debra Saunders that the facts in this specific case make it hard to understand how a lower court found that the public schools behaved unreasonably.  But the law isn’t about one set of facts; it applies to all instances.  If we pretend that the lower courts find that public schools denied a special education classification unreasonably, then obviously students would be denied their rights under IDEA if they had to wait 2-3 years for those services.

Debra goes on to violate the Denominator Law, writing: “It’s one of those nice people things. The government has expanded the notion of disability to the point of absurdity. But nice people refuse to look at the impending drain on public school budgets, or how one child’s boarding school tuition can mean that much less funding for all the other students’ educational needs.”  This was especially frustrating because I pleaded with her to report claims of financial burdens in context.  Besides quoting me, she chose to ignore my point and repeat her claims of burden with no basis to support it.

My colleague, Walter Olson, also has a post on Forest Groveon his blog, Overlawyerd.com.  While I disagree with Wally on this issue, I am sympathetic with his concerns.  Specifically, he notes that private placement is a remedy much more available to wealthy families than poor ones.  And he doubts the justice of disabled students having federally protected rights to an appropriate education while no one else does. 

I agree that rich kids have better access to this remedy than poor kids. That’s why I favor vouchers for special education, both to democratize this remedy and to better control costs. Vouchers control costs because the voucher is worth no more than would have been spent in public schools or private school tuition, whichever is less. Special ed vouchers also discourage over-identification of disabilities because schools would risk losing students when they classify students as disabled.

And I also agree that it is unclear why non-disabled students should have to wait in schools that fail to serve them appropriately while disabled students are entitled to find an appropriate education. But the solution is not to strip disabled students of that right.  The solution is to extend it to all students. Give vouchers to all students worth the amount that would be spent on them in public school (the amount would vary based on the cost of educating different kinds of students). If any student is unable to find what his family believes is an appropriate education, give them the resources to find it somewhere else.

Blaming Special Ed

January 4, 2009

It’s all too common but also completely mistaken to blame special education for the shortcomings of the public k-12 system.  If you point out that per pupil spending has more than doubled in the last three decades (adjusting for inflation) while student outcomes have remained unchanged, people blame the rising costs of special education.  (See for example Richard Rothstein on this).  If you point out that the teaching workforce has increased by about 40% in the last three decades (adjusted for changes in student population), people blame special education (see below).  If budgets are tight and programs get cut, people blame special education for draining money from general education

Blaming special ed is easy.  Most attempts to blame special ed don’t even bother presenting data or make the most crude use of data to support their claims.  Reporters simply accept assertions from school and state officials without question.  Folks accept the blame-special-ed-story so easily because — well, to put it bluntly — it is a a widely held but unstated prejudice.  People quietly resent special education because they fear that it is short-changing their regular education students.  They assume that money spent on disabled kids is necessarily money taken away from general education.  They can’t imagine that resources for general education have also increased at a very rapid clip even as special ed costs have risen. 

School officials — people who should know better — play upon this popular prejudice to rationalize their failures.  They would never dare blame the programs that have been created or expanded in the last three decades for the education of poor and minority students.  Those programs also cost quite a lot of money.  No, school officials choose to blame special ed because it seems like blaming fate.  Fate has overwhelmed us with a rise in disabilities, the story goes, which have drained general education of money, teachers, and flexibility under tight budgets.  Never mind the considerable evidence that the rise in special education over the last few decades is almost certainly due to an increased classification of students as disabled rather than a true increase in the rate of disabilities in the world.  Fate had nothing to do with it.

I’ve rebutted the claims that special ed is largely responsible for rising per pupil spending in chapters 1 and 2 of the book Education Myths as well as in this Education Next article and in this paper that was published in the Peabody Journal of Education

My purpose in this post is to address the comment written by “Kevin” that attributed the increase in the teaching workforce to special education.  Kevin was responding to a post by Greg in which he wrote: “But teachers’ unions have pushed up costs – dramatically. In the past 40 years, the cost of the government school system per student has much more than doubled (even after inflation) while outcomes are flat across the board. And this has mainly been caused by a dramatic increase in the number of teachers hired per student – a policy that benefits only the unions.”  And Kevin replied: “Any comparison of staffing in schools 40 years ago and today typically ignores one group of staff that didn’t exist in 1968 – special education teachers and aides. Special education programs weren’t in most schools 40 years ago, hence there were no staff hired to work with those specific populations, particularly students with cognitive delay and autism who need a much higher staff ratio than is provided in the general education classroom.”

I’m bothering to rebut Kevin’s claims because 1) he appears to be a state employee (perhaps a school official, judging from his email address), and 2) his comments are typical of the blame special ed rhetoric.  Notice that Kevin doesn’t bother to present any evidence.  He just tells a plausible story, which because he and many others have “pre-judged” it to be true, they consider persuasive without need of any proof.  But let’s consider the evidence here.

In 1974, the year before federal legislation governing the education of disabled students was adopted, there were 2.165 million public school teachers and an average student to teacher ratio of 20.8.  In 2006 there were 3.177 million public school teachers, an increase of 1.012 million teachers.  And in 2006 there were a total of 404,577 teacher FTEs providing special education services.

But we have to adjust for the fact that that some of those 404,577 teachers assigned to special education have been shifted (or had their lines shifted) to special education as more students have been reclassified as disabled.  We also have to adjust for the fact that there are more students in 2006 than in 1974.  To make everything comparable, let’s assume that the student-teacher ratio had remained at 20.8 for all students.  Given that there were 49.370 million public school students in 2006, there would have been 2.374 million teachers if ratios had stayed the same for everybody instead of the 3.177 million teachers we have.  So there was really an increase of 803,442 teachers, adjusted for the change in student population.

But if the 6,081,890 students classified as disabled also had 20.8 students for each teacher, they would have 292,398 teachers.  Given that there are 404,575 teachers assigned to special education, the lower student-teacher ratios required for disabled students only results in a net increase of 112,179 teachers (404,575 minus 292,398).  So, of the 803,442 teachers added since 1974 only about 112,179 can be explained by the need to offer smaller student-teacher ratios to disabled students.  That is, special ed may only account for about 14% of the increase in the teaching workforce.

What people like Kevin forget is that while virtually “no staff” were hired specifically for special education several decades ago, there were also virtually no students classified as disabled (although most were in schools and under-served).  If we shift 6 million students into special education and maintained the same 1974 ratio of 20.8 students per teacher, we would have shifted 292,398 teachers with them.  It’s true that with an increase in federal and state subsidies along with a mandate to provide services, we’ve reduced student teacher ratios for disabled students.  But we’ve only added an additional 112,179 teachers to produce smaller ratios for disabled students.

Of course, Greg also makes an excellent point when he says in the comments to his post that resources devoted to special ed should also be expected to produce improvements in results.  Regardless of how resources have been allocated between regular and special education, the money should be yielding benefits for students.  The fact that we have observed virtually no change in student outcomes over the last four decades despite a huge increase in real expenditures (regardless of how it was allocated) is a source of chronic frustration with public education. 

The unstated assumption of these blame-special-ed stories is that money spent on special education is basically money flushed down the toilet.  They assume that nothing can help disabled kids, which fuels the quiet resentment of resources devoted to special education.  Rather than looking for scapegoats — special education, rising poverty, cosmic rays, etc… — folks should focus on the perverse incentives of a broken public education system.  The fault, dear reader, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

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