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What The Chicago Strike Taught Teachers Unions


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Tens of thousands of Chicago public school teachers and hundreds of thousands of students returned to class today. Yesterday, delegates for the Chicago Teachers Union voted to suspend a strike that lasted more than a week, after they got the chance to study details of a proposed contract.

The walkout in the nation's third-largest school district raises questions about teachers' unions nationwide. In the Washington Post, Jane Hannaway and Andrew Rotherham, co-editors of the book "Collective Bargaining in Education," examined some of the common misperceptions about teachers' unions.

Among they myths they examined: Are unions to blame for low test scores and high dropout rates? Are teacher unions similar to private-sector unions? And is what's good for teachers always good for students? Teachers, administrators, parents, what's the role of the teachers' union where you live? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email And you can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, New York Mets knuckleball pitcher R.A. Dickey on the art of his unusual pitch. But first the myths and realities of teachers' unions. And Jane Hannaway, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, is with us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us.

JANE HANNAWAY: Thank you, nice to be here.

CONAN: And Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of education research organization Bellwether Education, welcome to you, too.


CONAN: And why don't we begin with you? Many of the details of the new contract in Chicago still to come out, but how has this strike and this settlement changed things?

ROTHERHAM: Well, it's unclear exactly what the details are, and at this point, these strikes have a rhythm to them, Neal. You know, people are sort of arguing back and forth, and now both sides kind of have an interest in both getting their story out but not upsetting the apple cart.

And so the details are still - some of the details are actually very officially TBD. They're going to have committees and so forth to work them out. Some of them, it's just a little unclear, and if you look at the paper the union puts out and the paper that the school districts puts out, they don't play that up like - and so there's a lot of spin going on.

I think what's clear is - well, it's a compromise. I don't think one side rolled the other side. The union did seem to get a lot of what it wanted in terms of they got an increase in compensation. They didn't have to give a lot on the teacher evaluation system. That was a big sticking point. And they won some what's been called recall, which is basically everybody in Chicago knows the school system's going to have to downsize some.

You have students who have left for charter schools. You have students who have left for the suburbs. The union, you know, they're very smart people. They know that this is going to mean potential layoffs and so forth in the not-too-distant future. So this issue of recall and what do you do for teachers who are laid off is a big issue, and they seem to have gotten - gained a little ground on protecting some of the teachers in - when that comes to pass.

CONAN: And Jane Hannaway, I wonder how it changes the climate - those other unions around the country, other teachers around the country look at this.

HANNAWAY: I think it - there will be some long-term effects to this. I'm a little bit maybe more optimistic than Andy is on this, primarily because I think it has made the process much more transparent. There was so much press coverage of the negotiation that I think the public is much better informed, now, about the sets of issues over which teachers have tremendous control in collective bargaining.

And I think the public was not so much aware of this before.

CONAN: And specifically what?

HANNAWAY: Specifically teacher evaluation, specifically teacher evaluation, that, you know, there's huge variation, we know that, in teacher effectiveness, and there's very little that the system is able to do to both reward the ones who are really good and to call out the ones who aren't so good.

CONAN: As I understand it, though, the ruling statute in Illinois is a state law, and that is what's in this contract. So it's not something that was won by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

ROTHERHAM: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, Illinois, as a lot of states, over the last three years more than 20 states have revamped their teacher evaluation systems. And that's, in part, both because of a growing awareness of the importance of this issue, research done by Jane and others that really has shed a lot of light on this question effectiveness. And then also, you know, the Obama administration had the Race to the Top competition, and so a lot of states changed their laws in an effort to win that competition, Illinois being one of them.

And so what happened with this contract is essentially what got negotiated is the floor that is in state law. And so for there to be less of an emphasis on evaluation, the contract would have in violation of state law. So that - I think people were critical of the contract. That's one thing you're hearing.

And then second, and this is an issue you see in a lot of states, you have an evaluation system, but what exactly does it mean? And as I read some of the details that are coming out in the Chicago settlement, it's unclear exactly at what point - so teachers can stay in sort of a developing or needs improvement status almost indefinitely. And so, you know, at what point does that become consequential? At what point does that become consequential in terms of layoffs.

And it seems like veteran teachers are going to be protected and will be protected in layoffs, even above highly rated teachers who are newer. That's been a big issue in a lot of states. So again, a lot of details need to come out, but it seems like on some of these key issues, you know, there was a lot of money put on the table. It's unclear exactly what the details and all the changes and how significant they're going to be.

HANNAWAY: I see this as a skirmish along the way, that over the last just five years, there has been a huge sea change in how teachers are evaluated, how they're rated, what the authority is of unions, what the activity is at the state level, at the federal level, at the district level in trying to identify who these teachers are that are so great.

And, you know, this was a skirmish. I think it popped up - I think it was, you know, a much stronger strike than anyone would have predicted. But I think, as a nation, the changes in the last five years have just been tremendous.

CONAN: Well, I wanted to get to some of the things you addressed in the Washington Post, every week they run five myths about, and this past week it was five myths about teachers' unions. And the first question that you address is: Are the unions to blame for low test scores and high dropout rates? And a lot of people would say yes.

HANNAWAY: Well, I think the unions have tremendous control over personnel policies, and it's the teachers that make the difference. They're the most important school factor that affects student achievement. There is certainly family factors that have tremendous effect on student achievement, and teachers have very little control over that.

But as far as school factors goes, it's the teachers. But teachers aren't alone, and they - you know, and Andy was talking about the settlement or what appears to be a settlement in Chicago. State legislatures, you know, are playing a role in what the base conditions were. The mayor was in there. The school board is in there. Collective bargaining agreements have multiple parties that sign on.

CONAN: And it's - as Jane was just saying, there are a lot of other people who play a role in this, not just the teachers, not just the union: parents, school boards, the state legislature.

ROTHERHAM: Exactly, I mean, I think when you asked that question, what we tried to make clear in the Post - in the Washington Post - you know, if you ask are teachers' unions responsible for low student achievement, you could answer only in part, or you could answer yes, but, and there's a lot of other factors that - many of which Jane just got at.

And unfortunately, you know, there's a lot happening. The attention to the issue that Jane's talking about in terms of evaluation, it's also, you know, our politics, and public-sector unions are increasingly under fire, and that's a component of this. And so in this debate you have people who - like Jane who - and myself who are pointing out areas where that we think the policy needs to change.

You also have people who simply want to eradicate public-sector unions. It's not a secret that they've become kind of the bulk work of unionization in this country as the fortunes of private-sector unions have declined. And so unions like the teachers' union, they're sort of the front line, and so there's a macro political debate going on at the same time that there's this wonkish education debate.

And so what it means is that it's very hard to have a sensible conversation about their role, because you have either people want to just be completely with them and protect them from any criticism, and you have people who sort of refuse to give them any quarter.

And there's a bunch of things that the teachers' unions do that are very important and very constructive. And, you know, it's a complicated, it's a complicated conversation.

CONAN: Jane is Jane Hannaway, vice president of the American Institutes for Research, director at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and co-editor, with our other guest Andrew Rotherham, of the book "Collective Bargaining in Education."

We want to hear from teachers and parents and administrators, as well. What's the role of the unions at your school? 800-989-8255. Email is We'll start with Tom(ph), Tom with us from Cincinnati.

TOM: Hey, how are you doing?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

TOM: Hey, you know, I was at a charter school my first year teaching, and to see what the teachers were put through, to see what the students were put through, it was scary. And I reached out to the local union here in Cincinnati and said hey, can you help me get unionized. And, you know, of course they couldn't.

But the next year I was in that school district, and now I'm part of the union, and I'm an activist in it. And, you know, I'm really proud to be part of a union because it - I stand up for children, and I'm the first line of defense of who they see every day.

CONAN: And so you feel that you felt defenseless at the charter school where there was no union and now have a voice.

TOM: Oh for sure. You had teacher, you know, being fired all the time, or they weren't let into meetings because they'd stuck up for the students so much, especially on IEPs. And, you know, these students' needs weren't getting met, and it was partly because the charter schools and the private organizations that ran these charter schools thought that those students were too expensive and too much of a drain on their financial situation.

And so the teachers couldn't even be advocates. Now with the union, we have a right to be in those meetings and defending those students. And it's not a money issue. It's about the student.

CONAN: Interesting. Thanks, Tom, for the phone call, appreciate it. And he, in an indirect way, raises one of the questions you address in your column: Is what's good for the teachers always good for the students? And you said...

ROTHERHAM: Sure, yeah, and Neal, I mean, I think, you know, Tom's comment, and obviously none of us are familiar with his specific situation, so we can't speak to the veracity of it, but I think what it illustrates, there's 14,000 public schools in this country, and you can find an anecdote anywhere to prove any point. And so people will point. And so, for example, in New Haven, the teachers' union, with the help of the National American Federation of Teachers, negotiated a very interesting new evaluation system.

It is consequential. Teachers are losing their jobs. You go a few hours south of there in Paterson, New Jersey, and you have - right now there's letters out in schools this week insisting that teachers work to the rule and don't even get out of their cars in the parking lot to come in to school before the contractual day starts.

And those two examples sort of illustrate the promise, the pitfall, the high variance. And in terms of, you know, this question then of are teachers' unions good for students, or is what's good for teachers good for kids, the answer then again is, it depends.

I mean, there are things they push for. To the extent teachers' unions are pushing for better professional development, better training for teachers, better support, those things are good for teachers, they're also good for students. Protecting education funding and state budgets, good for teachers, good for students.

Some of these other policies, some of these layoff issues where teachers who are more effective teachers get laid off ahead of less effective teachers, or where you have situations like what they wanted to do in Chicago, where you have, you know, a pool of teachers who aren't teaching, who are just carried by the district financially year after year, it's a lot harder to explain how those things help students.

CONAN: We're talking about myths and realities about teachers' unions in the aftermath of the strike, which is now - at least looks like it's been settled in Chicago. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. As public school teachers in Chicago get back to work, we're talking about myths and realities of teachers' unions. The two largest in the country are the National Education Association, the NEA, and the American Federation of Teachers, the AFT.

The NEA, with some three million members; AFT has about one and a half million. Teachers, administrators, parents, what's the role of teachers' unions where you live? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Andrew Rotherham, who co-founded Bellwether Education, a nonprofit focused on education policy research. He writes the weekly School of Thought column for Time and also served at the White House as a special assistant to president for domestic policy under President Bill Clinton. Jane Hannaway is vice president of the American Institutes for Research, director at the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research. Together they co-edited "Collective Bargaining in Education." The co-wrote a piece in the Washington Post, "Five Myths About Teachers' Unions."

Let's get another caller on the line. This is Nathan(ph), and Nathan's with us from Jacksonville.

NATHAN: Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

NATHAN: I just want - I don't have a question, although I do like the panelists that you've chosen today. I think they have a lot to say on the topic. Mine is really a comment. I am in education. I work in Jacksonville, Florida, for our public school system, and I'm also a member of our local teachers' union.

However, I am calling to speak about my experience, which is pretty lackluster. I'm not sure if most people in the country are aware, but here in Florida, we are not allowed to strike as teachers, even if we are union members. It is against the law. So we would not be seeing a Chicago situation develop here because it wouldn't be possible.

We're left to simply negotiate with our union leaders, and they speak for us when it comes time to speak. Some of you may know we're having issues with our governor, Mr. Rick Scott, and his opinion of unions and educators. So that's one issue.

Many of us that are union members, we pretty much use the union for defensive purposes. If someone makes an accusation, we know that we have the union to back us up. But in terms of advocating for our rights as teachers, that's where they fall short, at least here in northeast Florida. And thank you for letting me make my comment. I'll take my answers off the air.

CONAN: Thank you for the call. And this goes to one of the points you made in the column: Are teachers' unions the same as private-sector unions? And as we just heard from Nathan, no, they're not.

ROTHERHAM: But there is a real - you know, the Florida comparison is really interesting. We look at Florida and Chicago, and yeah, the labor law is different. And you sort of have the extremist states like Chicago, where unions are very strong. States like Florida and Virginia are the other extreme, where they're very weak.

But what's interesting is you could blind-taste-test schools, so go into a school in Florida, go into a school in Chicago and not know where you were, you'd have a hard time telling the difference because the unions are very powerful politically, and a lot of these provisions that we're talking about in the contract in Chicago, they just exist in state law somewhere else.

And so there's a lot more sort of commonality here than you think, and people frequently say there's no unions in the South, and the schools aren't very good, so that must be why, and it's sort of an obviously correlation-causation fallacy. Schools operate largely the same around the country. The question is just do these policies exist in a local contract, do they exist in state law?

CONAN: Jane?

HANNAWAY: Yes, I mean, it's interesting to go state by state and see how these laws are indeed set up because they're very much a creature of the state and with huge variation in terms of where various items sit in state law and then what they cover and what they don't cover.

CONAN: There was also a point you made in the post that teachers' unions are different also in that they can very influential in the election of school boards.

HANNAWAY: Yes, and the check on private-sector unions is an economic one. The check on public-sector unions is more a political one, as we saw in Chicago. That was political foes pitting against each other.

CONAN: And interesting, seen as an intra-party fight, inside the Democratic Party.

HANNAWAY: Very much so, yeah.

CONAN: Interesting. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line, and let's go to - this is Pete(ph), Pete with us from Charlotte.

PETE: Hey, how are you all today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

PETE: My concern has to do with the states like North Carolina that don't have unions and are not allowed to strike and the fact that our legislature has signed on with many of the, you know, proposals that the president has pushed through with Arne Duncan as the secretary there.

And so we're being forced to have this called paid for performance, where there really isn't any valid science that goes into these formulas to pay us based on our students' performance. And it's really creating some terrible issues. And that's part of the argument that's going on with Chicago right now is tying in student performance with teacher pay.

There are so many variables that teachers just have no control over.

CONAN: I think it's going to be...

PETE: Well, how can you hold us accountable for family issues or, you know, a crackhead mother or just inadequate parenting?

CONAN: I think it's supposed to now be 30 percent of the evaluation in Chicago. That's what I read. And he raises a couple of points. One, we forget that I think 53 percent of the schools across the country are union. There are almost half and half non-union.

ROTHERHAM: And on the Chicago case, I mean, there's actually - this story points up to the larger context. So there - actually, merit pay wasn't on the table in Chicago. The mayor wasn't asking for it in the negotiations, and the union obviously wasn't asking for it. What it was was this question of evaluation.

And where we've essentially gone, Neal, is from a system where we really didn't evaluate anybody at all. So in Chicago, even with the outcomes there - fewer than half the kids graduating high school enormous achievement gaps - almost every teacher there was rated effective or outstanding. Only four teachers in 1,000 were rated unsatisfactory. I mean, there just wasn't a lot of attention to this.

But we've gone from a system that didn't pay any attention to this to a system that the caller was referencing, where now we're going to try to do this across the board. And there are going to be a lot of mistakes. There's a lot of learning because this is still a relatively low-capacity system here. And so you're going to see a lot of friction points not only like what we saw in Chicago but just people learning, trying to do this, making mistakes.

And I think it's going to require - you know, I think it's pretty clear we have to pay more attention to this, but it's going to require a lot of patience on all sides as a lot of learning goes on over the next few years.

PETE: But the problem I have is when you make a mistake, it's affecting someone's salary.

CONAN: You were about to say, Jane?

HANNAWAY: Well, I think there's going to be a lot of shakeout over the next few years on this. These - you know, as I mentioned earlier, these changes are really quite dramatic and quite stark compared to the way education used to be run. And, you know, there are going to be some mistakes along the way, and I think we are going to have to live with them, and hopefully the system as a whole will be getting better.

ROTHERHAM: It's important to remember the backdrop here, the problems we're trying to solve and the extent of them, and also that, you know, most teachers don't teach in subjects that are assessed by standardized tests. Only about 30 percent of the teachers teach in those subjects and grades. And so it's a very complicated conversation about how do you evaluate people in multiple ways.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Pete. Here's an email from Steve(ph) in Michigan: I'm a teacher and in fact writing from my desk in the classroom, the kids are gone for the day. And I want to share how I view my union. It's the benefit package of the job. I don't get a bonus, but when I started, I thought the union meant I also didn't have to worry when and if the economy was not so great, and I could look forward to a steady check and retirement and health care, too.

It seemed reasonable 14 years ago when I started. I'm in a state that's hit hard due to loss of manufacturing jobs, and the promise of a steady job is no longer there. Weakening unions means losing part of what balanced out the very long hours, difficult work conditions and so on that lead to so many teachers leaving the field after just a few years.

And he's right, the turnover rate is tremendous, but other people say when a state like Michigan is undergoing such hard times, teachers have to take part of the sacrifice, too.

HANNAWAY: And in the large cities, where student populations are declining.

CONAN: And Detroit has emptied out.

HANNAWAY: Detroit, Chicago, D.C., student populations are declining. So yes, it's risky for teachers in that situation.

ROTHERHAM: And in Michigan in particular, you've seen some complicated politics because you have unions where the factories are closing, and people are being laid off in the private sector, and then you hear demands for sort of ongoing job security and so forth. And it's creating even some friction within the ranks of organized labor because just the situation around the country and in some places, it is just - it is so dire economically.

CONAN: Which again gets to a point. We were talking about Chicago as an intra-party fight, a Democratic Party fight. One of the questions you raise as a myth in the Washington Post is: Do teachers' unions only support Democrats?

HANNAWAY: Heavily. They heavily support Democrats but not only support Democrats.

CONAN: Sometimes Republicans.

HANNAWAY: Sometimes Republicans.

ROTHERHAM: And we pointed out some examples, and I think - you know, I think the fact that they overwhelmingly support Democrats has more to do with where the two parties are in education policy. Where Republicans have been willing to support their positions, they have supported them. And we pointed out, you know, they supported a very controversial state representative in Pennsylvania who championed the card - you know the ID to the vote - voting ID measure there that's highly controversial.

And they have given him $40,000 over the past six years. So, you know, he's with them on their other positions. They support groups that are, you know, anti-gay and other things, if they're with them on those positions. They're a special interest group like any other, and we get all, you know, emotional about it because it's teachers, but you really have to look at them the same way you'd look at any other special interest group, whether it's, you know, AAA or Trout Unlimited or the NRA.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in from Michigan. This one - Paige is with us from Birmingham, Michigan. Oh, but I think Paige has left us, so let's go instead to - this Dina. Dina with us from Napa, California.

DINA: Hi there. Can you hear me?

CONAN: Yes. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

DINA: I'm a retired teacher. Testing got to me finally. I just - the idea - I've written articles on this. The idea that we judge children by testing when the testing is frequently not valid - you cannot judge teachers by that. And that being said, there are teachers in every district that everybody knows are nightmares. They shouldn't be in a classroom, and yet year after year the principals' claim is because the unions tie their hands, and part of that may be true in some states. But year after year, these people continue to go into the classroom and either do nothing or do great harm.

And the union, at some point, needs to be willing to somehow cooperate to protect their own profession and the name of teacher, which to me is sacred. I mean Jesus was a teacher. Muhammad was a teacher. If you want to protect the name of teacher, you have to be willing to help get rid of those people who literally are sitting, just collecting a paycheck, and sometimes doing tremendous damage.

CONAN: And Dina's opinion - well, she's not alone, to put it mildly.

HANNAWAY: And there are two extremes. There are teachers at the bottom - I mean, I'll tell you what the statistics say. Teachers at the bottom, about the bottom 15th percentile in grades that are tested, are getting about a half a year's gain from their students. Teachers in the top 15 percentile are getting about a year and a half gain for their students. Three times the amount, huge.

DINA: I was a top teacher, and I did not expect that somebody who had slower students than me to get as much gain, but I expected them to try.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Dina, thanks very much for the call.


CONAN: And she's also talking about a situation where unions are seen protecting bad teachers and at the same time seen resisting programs like Teach for America.

HANNAWAY: Well, Teach for America is now in a number of districts, and I think Teach for America really goes to some effort to have a good relationship with unions. But you know, again, we're seeing a huge shift happening, and I think the progress has been amazing, and I think within the teachers' unions there are individuals who have different views about how much change and how fast should the change be. And that's all working itself out.

CONAN: Jane Hannaway is with us and Andrew Rotherham - they are the co-authors of a piece called "Five Myths About Teachers Unions"; it appeared in The Washington Post this past weekend. They are also the co-editors of the "Collective Bargaining in Education" book. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I wanted to read this email. Eileen in California: As the wife of a teacher, I've been shocked by how ineffective my husband's union is. We live in one of the most wealthy parts of the country. Many people don't know and realize that there's families that don't receive medical insurance. For our family of four to be covered by an HMO insurance plan would cost my husband 15 to 18 thousand dollars a year. Many believe we get great benefits due to our union status, which makes it easier to vilify teachers, which is hurtful and demoralizing and a national trend. Teachers do a very difficult job because they love kids. They deserve our support.

And she's right, the benefits package - it's not the same anywhere - everywhere.

ROTHERHAM: No, it varies greatly. In fact, like when she was reading that, that's the exact same situation my wife was in. In fact, their local union was decertified because it did such a bad job, and so the members all basically opted out of it. Where she was teaching, you know, that's in Virginia, elsewhere, the associations are very strong and the benefit package is varying. Again, I mean if there's one thing people take away from this conversation, education conversations more generally, it's variance. I mean, just here, right near where we are, you can - there's teachers who are making six figures and there are school districts where teachers' salaries top out in the 40s.

And they're a very close drive from one another. And the system - if you had to say one thing to describe American education right now, it would be that: highly varied.

CONAN: And it's interesting, you were pointing out the situations in New Haven and in Paterson, New Jersey as very different, addressing another point you raise in the column, that teachers' unions resist any kind of reform. Well, true in some places, not so true in others.

ROTHERHAM: Exactly, and it depends on local circumstance. So in New haven, for instance, the mayor was going to act unilaterally. The union came to the table and ended up designing something that has a lot of promise not only for New Haven, but potentially for elsewhere. But in Chicago, you didn't hear that proposal on the table whatsoever. No one in the union said, let's do what they did in New Haven. You had this different - you had this different fight. And so you can find - and this is the problem with this debate, you can find examples to prove almost any point. And against, you know, again, against this larger backdrop, this is a $650 billion industry that we're talking about, Neal, public schools, public K12 schools, and it is transition. And it is evolving from a system that operated one way with relatively little attention to performance, to a system where we're having a lot more conversations about performance, improving outcomes, propelling many more kids into college and careers and so forth. And so all of these different things we're talking about are sort of friction points that are surfacing in that effort.

HANNAWAY: Structurally, the United States is very different from most other industrialized countries. Education is hugely decentralized and that's part of the reason for the variation, variation in state laws, variation at the district level, in terms of strength of unions and different collective bargaining contracts, and very difficult policy-wise to sort of move the system as a system. In other countries where it's more centralized, it's much easier to move the whole system. Here it's bit by bit, skirmish by skirmish, fight by fight.

CONAN: And you mentioned Chicago is one skirmish against the backdrop of what's been happening politically in states like Wisconsin and Ohio over the past couple of years as well.

HANNAWAY: That's right, in terms of public sector unions, and that's the political side. So there are two things going on simultaneously, which I think Andy mentioned, and it's really important to keep them distinct. One is, you know, a political backlash, I think, against unions, public sector unions in general. And the other, going on simultaneously, is an effort to try to really increase the performance of education in the United States. These are two things that are going on simultaneously, and they get conflated in some ways.

Andy mentioned some places where unions were very cooperative with local administrators in terms of affecting reform. That is going on in some places. So again, we - I certainly don't want to and I don't think Andy either wants to talk about this as if we're bashing unions. That's not what's happening here. What - our interest is mainly in increasing education productivity.

CONAN: Jane Hannaway is vice president of the American Institutes for Research. Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of the education research organization Bellwether Education. Thanks, both of you, very much for your time today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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