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A school voucher, also called an education voucher, with the system overall being called the voucher system, is a certificate of funding issued by the government, which the parents of a schoolchild have control of and are able to direct towards the public or private school of their own choosing to fully or partially pay for the tuition of their child at that school for that year, term or semester. In some countries, states or local jurisdictions, the voucher can be used to cover or reimburse home schooling expenses. In some countries, vouchers only exist for tuition at private schools.
Under many non-voucher education systems, people who currently pay for private schooling are still taxed for public schools, though in some countries, states or local jurisdictions (e.g. in Australia) private schools still receive substantial government funding; therefore, the parents in these jurisdictions fund both public and private schools simultaneously. Opponents of private-school-only education vouchers believe that all citizens have an equal responsibility in the investment of a public education and believe that the choice of sending children to private schools should not involve public money. Supporters of the voucher system consider that offsetting the cost of private school tuition, vouchers and tax credits are intended to allow students and families to choose the school that best fits their needs. Opponents of school vouchers say that choice already exists without vouchers and allowing families the option of withholding their tax obligation undermines the public education system by threatening its funding.
The oldest continuing school voucher programs existing today in the United States are the Town Tuitioning programs in Vermont and Maine, beginning in 1869 and 1873 respectively. Because some towns in these states operate neither local high schools nor elementary schools, students in these towns "are eligible for a voucher to attend [either] public schools in other towns or non-religious private schools. In these cases, the 'sending' towns pay tuition directly to the 'receiving' schools."
|This section's factual accuracy is disputed. (March 2014)|
A system of educational vouchers was introduced in the Netherlands in 1917. Today, more than 70% of pupils attend privately run but publicly funded schools, mostly split along denominational lines.
Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman argued for the modern concept of vouchers in the 1950s, stating that competition would improve schools and cost efficiency. The view further gained popularity with the 1980 TV broadcast of Friedman's series Free to Choose for which volume 6 was devoted entirely to promoting educational freedom through programs like school vouchers.
In some Southern states during the 1960s, school vouchers were used as a method of perpetuating segregation. In a few instances, public schools were closed outright and vouchers were issued to parents. The vouchers, in many cases, were only good at privately segregated schools, known as segregation academies. In 2005, Dr. Allah Bakhsh Malik Managing Director Punjab Education Foundation, under the supervision of Professor Henry M. Levin introduced Education Vouchers scheme in Pakistan with the features of equity, productivity, social cohesion and freedom of choice. Today, all modern voucher programs prohibit racial discrimination.
There are important distinctions between different kinds of schools:
|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (December 2010)|
Proponents assert that school voucher and education tax credit systems promote free market competition among both private and public schools. By allowing parents and students to "vote with their feet," they incentivize schools to increase accountability and school performance. Proponents argue that the competition spurred by vouchers and education tax credits increases the quality and efficiencies of both eligible private schools and local public schools, as they both must perpetually improve in order to maintain enrollment caused by the competitive nature of dollar voting and the swift accountability that results from increasing consumer sovereignty - allowing individuals to control what product or service they prefer to buy as opposed to a bureaucracy.
The argument that school vouchers increases quality and efficiencies in schools forced to compete is supported by studies such as "When Schools Compete: The Effects of Vouchers on Florida Public School Achievement" (Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's, 2003), which concluded that public schools located near private schools that were eligible to accept voucher students made significantly more improvements than did similar schools not located near eligible private schools. Stanford's C.M. Hoxby, who has researched the systemic effects of school choice, determined that areas with greater residential school choice have consistently higher test scores at a lower per-pupil cost than areas with very few school districts (see Hoxby, 1998). Hoxby found that the effects of vouchers in Milwaukee and of charter schools in Arizona and Michigan on nearby public schools forced to compete made greater test score gains than schools not faced with such competition (see Hoxby, 2001), and that the so-called effect of cream skimming did not exist in any of the voucher districts examined. Hoxby's research has found that both private and public schools improved through the use of vouchers. Also, similar competition has helped in manufacturing, energy, transportation, and parcel postal (UPS, FedEx vs. USPS) sectors of government that have been socialized and later opened up to free market competition.
Similarly, it is argued that such competition has helped in higher education, with publicly funded universities directly competing with private universities for tuition money provided by the Government, such as the GI Bill and the Pell Grant in the United States. The Foundation for Educational Choice alleges that a school voucher plan "embodies exactly the same principle as the GI bills that provide for educational benefits to military veterans. The veteran gets a voucher good only for educational expense and he is completely free to choose the school at which he uses it, provided that it satisfies certain standards."
Proponents claim that frequently institutions are forced to operate at higher efficiencies when they are allowed to compete and that any resulting job losses in the public sector would be offset by the increased demand for jobs in the private sector.
Friedrich von Hayek on the privatizing of education:
As has been shown by Professor Milton Friedman (M. Friedman, The role of government in education, 1955), it would now be entirely practicable to defray the costs of general education out of the public purse without maintaining government schools, by giving the parents vouchers covering the cost of education of each child which they could hand over to schools of their choice. It may still be desirable that government directly provide schools in a few isolated communities where the number of children is too small (and the average cost of education therefore too high) for privately run schools. But with respect to the great majority of the population, it would undoubtedly be possible to leave the organization and management of education entirely to private efforts, with the government providing merely the basic finance and ensuring a minimum standard for all schools where the vouchers could be spent. (F. A. Hayek, in his 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty, section 24.3)
Other notable supporters include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, former Governor of South Carolina Mark Sanford, billionaire and American philanthropist John T. Walton, Former Mayor of Baltimore Kurt L. Schmoke, Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and John McCain.
The problem is bureaucracy. I'm one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the full voucher system.
I have a 17-year-old daughter who went to a private school for a few years before high school. This private school is the best school I've seen in my life. It was judged one of the 100 best schools in America. It was phenomenal. The tuition was $5,500 a year, which is a lot of money for most parents. But the teachers were paid less than public school teachers - so it's not about money at the teacher level. I asked the state treasurer that year what California pays on average to send kids to school, and I believe it was $4,400. While there are not many parents who could come up with $5,500 a year, there are many who could come up with $1,000 a year.
If we gave vouchers to parents for $4,400 a year, schools would be starting right and left. People would get out of college and say, "Let's start a school."
Some proponents of school vouchers, including the Sutherland Institute and many supporters of the Utah voucher effort, see it as a remedy for the negative cultural impact caused by under-performing public schools, which falls disproportionately on demographic minorities. During the run-up to the November referendum election Sutherland issued a controversial publication: Voucher, Vows, & Vexations. Sutherland called the publication an important review of the history of education in Utah while critics just called it revisionist history. Sutherland then released the subsequent companion article in a law journal as part of an academic conference about school choice.
The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, founded by Milton and Rose Friedman in 1996, is a non-profit organization that promotes universal school vouchers and other forms of school choice. In defense of vouchers, it cites empirical research showing that students who were randomly assigned to receive vouchers had higher academic outcomes than students who applied for vouchers but lost a random lottery and did not receive them; and that vouchers improve academic outcomes at public schools, reduce racial segregation, deliver better services to special education students, and do not drain money from public schools.
The main controversy over both school vouchers and education tax credits is that they put public education in direct competition with private education, threatening to reduce and reallocate public school funding to private schools. Proponents of a voucher system are encouraged by private school sector growth as it is their view that private schools are typically more efficient at achieving results at a much lower per pupil cost when compared to public schools. A CATO Institute study of public and private school per pupil spending in Phoenix, Los Angeles, D.C., Chicago, New York City, and Houston found that public schools spend 93% more than estimated median private schools. However, much variation exists in private school spending, so an average of how much "less" private schools spend as compared to public schools can be misleading.
Jonathan Kozol, a former public school teacher and prominent public school reform thinker has called vouchers the "single worst, most dangerous idea to have entered education discourse in my adult life." Other public school teachers and teacher unions have also fought against school vouchers. In the United States, public school teacher unions, most notably the National Education Association (the largest labor union in the USA), argue against the idea of school vouchers for concern that it would erode educational standards and reduce funding, and that giving money to parents who choose to send their child to a religious or other school is unconstitutional; however, the latter issue has been struck down by the Supreme Court case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, which upheld Ohio's voucher plan in a 5-4 ruling. In contrast, the use of public school funding for vouchers to private schools was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2013. In its ruling the Louisiana Supreme Court did not declare vouchers unconstitutional; just the use of money earmarked for public schools via the Louisiana Constitution for funding Louisiana's voucher program. The National Education Association also points out that access to vouchers is just like “a chance in a lottery” where parents had to have luckiness in order to get a space in this program. Since almost all students and their families would like to choose the best schools, those schools, as a result, quickly reach its maximum capacity number for students that state law permits. The major “unlucky families” then have to compete again to look for some other less preferred and competitive schools or give up searching and go back to their assigned local schools.
It is interesting to note that efforts to make vouchers available aren't always noticed by those able to use them. In April 2012, a bill passed in Louisiana that made vouchers available to low-income families whose children attended poorly ranked schools. Under the new law, any student whose household income was sufficiently low (up to about $44,000 for a family of three) that attended a school ranked "C", "D", or "F" could apply for vouchers to attend another school. Of the estimated 380,000 students that were eligible for the vouchers during the 2012-2013 school year (the same year the bill was passed), only 5,000 students knew about and applied for the vouchers, and accepted them.
In 2006, the United States Department of Education released a report concluding that average test scores for reading and mathematics, when adjusted for student and school characteristics, tend to be very similar among public schools and private schools. If results were left unadjusted for factors such as race, gender, and free or reduced price lunch program eligibility, private schools performed significantly better than public schools. Other research questions assumptions that large improvements would result from a more comprehensive voucher system.
Given the limited budget for schools, it is claimed that a voucher system would weaken public schools while at the same time not necessarily providing enough money for people to attend private schools. 76% of the money handed out for Arizona’s voucher program has gone to children already in private schools.
Some sources claim that public schools' higher per pupil spending is due to having a higher proportion of students with behavioral, physical and emotional problems. They argue that some, if not all, of the cost difference between public and private schools comes from a process known as cream skimming—selecting only those students that belong to a preferred economic, religious, or ethnic group—rather than from differences in administration.
In the United States, public schools must by law accept any student regardless of race, gender, religion, disability, etc. Thus, it has been argued that a voucher system would lead students who do not belong to a preferred religious or ethnic group, or those with disabilities, to become concentrated within the public school system. Of the ten state-run voucher programs in the United States at the beginning of 2011, however, four targeted low-income students, two targeted students in failing schools, and six targeted students with special needs. (Note that Louisiana ran a single program targeting all three groups.)
Another argument against the implementation of a school voucher system is its lack of accountability to the taxpayer. In many states, members of a community's board of education are elected by voters. Similarly, a school budget faces a referendum. Meetings of the Board of Education must be announced in advance, and members of the public are permitted to voice their concerns directly to board members. Although vouchers may be used in private and religious schools, taxpayers are not able to vote on budgetary issues, elect members of the board or even attend board meetings. Kevin Welner points out that vouchers funded through a convoluted tax credit system—a policy he calls "Neovouchers"—present additional accountability concerns. With neovoucher systems, a taxpayer owing money to the state instead donates that money to a private, nonprofit organization. That organization then bundles donations and gives them to parents as vouchers to be used for private school tuition. The state then steps in and forgives (through a tax credit) some or all of the taxes that the donor has given to the organization. While conventional tax credit systems are structured to treat all private school participants equally, neovoucher systems effectively delegate to individual private taxpayers (those owing money to the state) the power to decide which private schools will benefit.
An example of lack of accountability is the voucher situation in Louisiana. In 2012, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White selected private schools to receive vouchers then attempted to fabricate criteria (including site visits) after schools had already received approval letters. One school of note, New Living Word in Ruston, Louisiana, did not have sufficient facilities for the over-300 students White and the state board of education had approved. Following a voucher audit in 2013, New Living Word had overcharged the state $395,000. White referred to the incident as a "lone substantive issue."  However, most voucher schools did not undergo a complete audit for not having a separate checking account for state voucher money.
According to Susanne Wiborg, an expert on comparative education, Sweden's voucher system introduced in 1992 has "augmented social and ethnic segregation, particularly in relation to schools in deprived areas."
Tax-credit scholarships which are in most part disbursed to current private school students or to families which made substantial donations to the scholarship fund, rather than to low-income students attempting to escape from failing schools, amount to nothing more than a mechanism to use public funds in the form of foregone taxes to support private, often religiously based, private schools.
In Chile, there is an extensive voucher system in which the State pays private and municipal schools directly based on student attendance. This system covers nearly 90% of its students. It was introduced in 1981. Dr. Martin Carnoy of Stanford, Patrick J. McEwan claims that based on his research, when controls for the student's background (parental income and education) are introduced, the difference in performance between public and private subsectors is not significant.
In most European countries, education for all primary and secondary schools is fully subsidized. In some countries (e.g. Belgium), parents are free to choose which school their child attends.
Most schools in Ireland are state-aided parish schools, established under diocesan patronage but with capital costs, teachers salaries and a per head fee paid to the school. These are given to the school regardless of whether or not it requires its students to pay fees. (Although fee-paying schools are in the minority, there has been much criticism over the state aid they receive with opponents claiming this gives them an unfair advantage.)
There is a recent trend towards multi-denominational schools established by parents, which are organised as limited companies without share capital. Parents and students are free to choose their own school. In the event of a school failing to attract students it immediately loses its per-head fee and over time loses its teaching posts- and teachers are moved to other schools which are attracting students. The system is perceived to have achieved very successful outcomes for most Irish children.
The 1995-7 Rainbow Coalition (which contained parties of the centre right and the left) introduced free third-level education to primary degree level. Critics of the latter development charge that it has not increased the number of students from economically deprived backgrounds attending university. However, studies have shown that the removal of tuition fees at third level has increased the number of students overall and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This concurs with evidence from the UK of a decrease in attendance numbers after the introduction of fees. However, since the economic crisis, there has been extensive talk and debate regarding the reintroduction of third-level fees.
In Sweden, a system of school vouchers (called skolpeng) were introduced in 1992 at primary and secondary school level, enabling free choice among publicly run schools and privately run friskolor ("free schools"). The voucher is paid with public funds from the local municipality (kommun) directly to a school based solely on its number of students. Both public schools and free schools are funded the same way. Free schools can be run by not-for-profit groups as well as by for-profit companies, but may not charge top-up fees or select students other than on a first-come-first-serve basis. Over 10% of Swedish pupils were enrolled in free schools in 2008 and the number is growing fast, leading the country to be viewed as a pioneer of the model.
Per Unckel, governor of Stockholm and former Minister of Education, has promoted the system, saying "Education is so important that you can’t just leave it to one producer, because we know from monopoly systems that they do not fulfill all wishes." The Swedish system has been recommended to Barack Obama by some commentators, including the Pacific Research Institute, which has released a documentary called Not As Good As You Think: Myth of the Middle Class Schools, a movie depicting positive benefits for middle class schools resulting from Sweden's voucher programs.
A 2004 study concluded that school results in public schools improved due to the increased competition. However, Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education, has said that the system "has not led to better results" and in the 2000s Sweden's ranking in the PISA league tables worsened.
A voucher system for children three to six years-old who attend a non-profit kindergarten was implemented in Hong Kong in 2007. Each child will get HK$13,000 pa. The $13,000 subsidy will be separated into two parts. $10,000 is used to subsidize the school fee and the remaining $3,000 is used for kindergarten teachers to pursue further education and obtain a certificate in Education. Also, there are some restrictions on the voucher system. Parents can only choose those non-profit making with yearly fee less than $24,000. The government hopes that all kindergarten teachers can obtain an Education certificate by the year 2011-2012, at which point the subsidies are to be adjusted to $16000 for each student, all of which will go toward the school fee.
Milton Friedman criticised the system, saying "I do not believe that CE Mr. Tsang's proposal is properly structured." He said that the whole point of a voucher system is to provide a competitive market place so should not be limited to non-profit kindergartens.
After protests by parents with children enrolled in for profit kindergartens, the program was extended to children in for- profit kindergartens, but only for children enrolled in or before September 2007. The government will also provide up to HK$30,000 subsidy to for profit kindergartens wanting to convert to non profit.
Dr. Allah Bakhsh Malik Managing Director and Chief Executive of Punjab Education Foundation - PEF introduced Education Voucher Scheme - EVS in Punjab especially in urban slums and poorest of the poor in 2005. The initial study was sponsored by Open Society Institute New York USA. Professor Henry M Levin extended Pro-Bono services for the children of poor families from Punjab.To ensure educational justice and avoid educational apartheid, the government must ensure that the poorest of the poor have equal access to quality education. Only then will future generations be able to escape from the vicious cycle of poverty and deprivation. In collaboration with the Teachers College, Columbia University, and the Open Society Institute, the PEF designed the Education Voucher Scheme (EVS) for the slums (or katchi abadies) in the province of Punjab. The EVS aims to promote freedom of choice, efficiency, equity, and social cohesion. A pilot project was started in 2006 in the urban slums of Sukhnehar, Lahore, where a survey showed that all households were living below the poverty line. Through the EVS, the foundation would deliver education vouchers to every household with children 5–13 years of age. The vouchers would be redeemable against tuition payments at participating private schools. In the pilot stage, 1,053 households were given an opportunity to send their children to a private school of their choice. The EVS makes its partner schools accountable to the parents rather than to the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Education. In the FAS program, every school principal has the choice of admitting a student or not. In the EVS, however, the decision regarding where a child attends school is up to the parents because they are the ones carrying the education voucher issued by the PEF. The partner schools are also accountable to the PEF: they are subject to periodic reviews of their student learning outcomes, additional private investments, and improvements in working conditions of the teachers. The EVS provides an incentive to parents to send their children to school, and so it has become a source of competition among private schools seeking to join the program. When it comes to the selection of schools, the following criteria are applied across the board: (i) The fee paid by the PEF to EVS partner schools is PKR 300 per child per month. Schools charging higher fees can also apply to the program, but they will not be paid more than PKR 450, and they will not be entitled to charge the difference from students’ families. (ii) Total school enrollment should be between 100 and 500 children. (iii) The school should have an adequate infrastructure and a good learning environment. (iv) EVS partner schools should be located within a half-kilometer radius of the residences of voucher holders. However, if the parents prefer a particular school that is farther away, the PEF will have no objection, provided that the school fulfills the EVS selection criteria. (v) The PEF advertises to stimulate the interest of potential partner schools. It then gives students at short-listed schools preliminary tests in selected subjects, and conducts physical inspections of these schools. PEF offices display a list of all the EVS partner schools so that parents may consult it and choose a school for their children.
By now more than 140, 000 students are benefiting from EVS and the program is being scaled up by financing from Government of the Punjab.
In the 1980s, the Reagan administration pushed for vouchers, as did the George W. Bush administration in the initial education-reform proposals leading up to the No Child Left Behind Act. In 2011, it was estimated that nearly 171,000 students would participate in 18 existing school choice programs in 10 states (Vermont, Maine, New Mexico and 7 others) and the District of Columbia. Most of these programs were offered to students in low-income families, low performing schools, or special-education programs.
In 1990, the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin's public schools were the first to offer vouchers and has nearly 15,000 students using vouchers as of 2011. The 2006-2007 school year marked the first time in Milwaukee that more than $100 million was paid in vouchers. Twenty-six percent of Milwaukee students will receive public funding to attend schools outside the traditional Milwaukee Public School system. In fact, if the voucher program alone were considered a school district, it would mark the sixth-largest district in Wisconsin. St. Anthony Catholic School, located on Milwaukee's south side, boasts 966 voucher students, meaning that it very likely receives more public money for general school support of a parochial elementary or high school than any before it in American history. Under the current state formula for paying school vouchers, however, Milwaukee residents pay more in property taxes for voucher students than for students attending public schools. This imbalance has received considerable criticism, and is the subject of 2007 legislative proposals designed to alter the formula.
The school voucher question in the United States has also received a considerable amount of judicial review in the early 2000s.
A program launched in the city of Cleveland in 1995 and authorized by the state of Ohio was challenged in court on the grounds that it violated both the federal constitutional principle of separation of church and state and the guarantee of religious liberty in the Ohio Constitution. These claims were rejected by the Ohio Supreme Court, but the federal claims were upheld by the local federal district court and by the Sixth Circuit appeals court. The fact that nearly all of the families using vouchers attended Catholic schools in the Cleveland area was cited in the decisions.
This was later reversed during 2002 in a landmark case before the US Supreme Court, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, in which the divided court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled the Ohio school voucher plan constitutional and removed any constitutional barriers to similar voucher plans in the future, with moderate justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor and conservative justices William Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas in the majority.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority, stated that "The incidental advancement of a religious mission, or the perceived endorsement of a religious message, is reasonably attributable to the individual aid recipients not the government, whose role ends with the disbursement of benefits." The Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio program did not violate the Establishment Clause, because it passed a five-part test developed by the Court in this case, titled the Private Choice Test.
Dissenting opinions included Justice Stevens's, who wrote "...the voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government's choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible." and Justice Souter's, whose opinion questioned how the Court could keep Everson v. Board of Education on as precedent and decide this case in the way they did, feeling it was contradictory. He also found that religious instruction and secular education could not be separated and this itself violated the Establishment Clause.
In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court struck down legislation known as the Florida Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), which would have implemented a system of school vouchers in Florida. The court ruled that the OSP violated article IX, section 1(a) of the Florida Constitution: "Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." This decision was criticized by Clark Neily, Institute for Justice senior attorney and legal counsel to Pensacola families using Florida Opportunity Scholarships, as, "educational policymaking."
Political support for school vouchers in the United States is mixed. On the left/right spectrum, conservatives are more likely to support vouchers. Some state legislatures have enacted voucher laws. In New Mexico, Libertarian Gary Johnson made school voucher provision the major issue of his second term as Governor. As of 2006, the federal government operates the largest voucher program, for evacuees from the region affected by Hurricane Katrina. The Federal government provided a voucher program for 7,500 residents of Washington, D.C. - the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. until in early March 2009 congressional Democrats were moving to close down the program and remove children from their voucher-funded school places at the end of the 09/10 school year under the $410 billion Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 which, as of March 7 had passed the House and was pending in the Senate. The Obama administration stated that it preferred to allow children already enrolled in the program to finish their schooling while closing the program to new entrants. However, its preference on this matter does not appear to be strong enough to prevent the President from signing the Bill.
Whether or not the public generally supports vouchers is debatable. Majorities seem to favor improving existing schools over providing vouchers, yet as many as 40% of those surveyed admit that they do not know enough to form an opinion or do not understand the system of school vouchers.
In November 2000, a voucher system proposed by Tim Draper was placed on the California ballot as Proposition 38. It was unusual among school voucher proposals in that it required neither accreditation on the part of schools accepting vouchers, nor proof of need on the part of families applying for them; neither did it have any requirement that schools accept vouchers as payment-in-full, nor any other provision to guarantee a reduction in the real cost of private school tuition. The measure was defeated by a final percentage tally of 70.6 to 29.4.
A state-wide universal school voucher system providing a maximum tuition subsidy of $3000 was passed in Utah in 2007, but 62% of voters repealed it in a statewide referendum before it took effect. On April 27, 2011 Indiana passed a statewide voucher program, the largest in the U.S. It offers up to $4,500 to students with househould incomes under $41,000, and lesser benefits to households with higher incomes. The vouchers can be used to fund a variety of education options outside the public school system. In March 2013, the Indiana Supreme Court found that the program does not violate the state constitution.
Some schools in these voucher programs are teaching Creationism instead of the theory of evolution. Over 300 schools in the USA have been documented as teaching creation and receive taxpayer money. Contrary to public belief, this was deemed constitutional in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris.
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