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Critical Issue:
Dynamic Debate—Determining the Evolving Impact of Charter Schools

This Critical Issue was researched and written by NCREL Program Associate Rhetta Detrich, Program Associate Rebecca Phillips, and former NCREL Policy Information Director Deanna Durrett.

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ISSUE: In the decade since the first charter school opened, an incredibly diverse array of charter schools have opened their doors to an equally diverse mix of instructional models, students, and staff. Stories of success, failure, struggle, and achievement have surfaced in this effort to improve public education. Tracking the true measure of their success will continue well into the new millennium, but there is no doubt that the dynamic debate they ignite has already had enormous impact in the educational arena. The pros and cons of charter schools have opened a dialogue, which in itself is impacting, energizing, and informing school improvement research, policy, and practice. This Critical Issue looks at that dynamic.

This Critical Issue also puts charter school development in an historic as well as legislative context, posits three ongoing themes that permeate the ongoing debate surrounding charter schools, and delineates common traits among successful charter schools.

Overview | Goals | Action Options | Pitfalls | Cases | Contacts | References

OVERVIEW: During the past 20 years, segments of the American public have expressed growing dissatisfaction with public education. The belief that education is failing many of our children has led to an exhaustive array of initiatives, movements, and mandates designed to improve educational offerings. All of these initiatives have taken place within the context of the traditional public school structure operated by federal, state, and local governing bodies.

Many frustrated teachers, parents, and other stakeholders believe that government is not in a position to provide solutions to improve education because the traditional government structures and mandates are, they believe, a large part of the problem (Chubb & Moe, 1990). A real solution, they offer, is to reinvent the system by which we provide and run public education—a reinvented system of choice, flexibility, and accountability that includes the creation of charter schools. Communities are invited to create new public schools with high levels of autonomy to be innovative in ways that may or may not embrace traditional educational structures. These schools are invited to take new and uncharted paths, but also are held responsible for ensuring that these paths lead to educational success for students.

By definition, charter schools are publicly funded schools permitted to operate autonomously and free from many of the regulations other public schools must follow. This flexibility is awarded as part of a contract, or charter, with an authorizing agency that holds the school accountable for achieving its outlined charter goals, including supporting student achievement, within a certain period of time (usually five years).

Charter schools introduce a line of thinking that is foreign to many in education. The basic premise is that, given an opportunity to choose a different school for their child, many parents will choose to leave the traditional public school in favor of a charter school that offers a unique philosophy, culture, curriculum, or organizational style better suited to meet the educational needs of their children. These choices allow parents and students to "vote with their feet," or make their voices heard by selecting schools that offer a better match for what they are seeking for their children.

This model introduces the theory of market forces into public education. Both traditional public schools and charter schools are forced to be responsive to parents or risk losing students and the dollars that follow those students. Charter schools have the added burden of not only attracting students but also meeting the specified educational goals outlined in the charter agreement.

The first charter school, City Academy, opened its doors in 1991 in Minnesota. Since that time, more than 36 states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school legislation allowing for the creation of more than 2,300 charter schools that serve more than 575,000 students in rural, urban, and suburban communities across the United States (Bulkley & Fisler, 2002). However, more than half of all charter schools are concentrated in just a few states. Arizona has the highest number of charter schools, with 468 schools serving more than 60,000 students. California runs a close second with 452 charter schools, followed by Florida (232), Texas (228), and Michigan (186). On the whole, charter schools enroll a very small percentage of the school-age population, but the interest in the charter school movement is broad and growing. The 2002–2003 school year added 393 charter schools, with schools opening for the first time in Indiana and Wyoming (Center for Educational Reform, 2002).

Nearly two-thirds of all the newly created charter schools were started "to realize an alternative vision of schooling" (RPP International, 2000, p. 76). The alternative vision for each school varies widely. Generally, charter schools are started by educators, parents, or organizations. Many educators see the charter school movement as an opportunity to act on their dreams for creating a unique kind of school that allows them to do things differently in order to achieve their vision. Parents who lead the startup of charter schools often do so because of dissatisfaction with the experiences they have had with their traditional public school system. The last group, organizations, comprises nonprofit and for-profit groups that see charter schools as a means of putting their best ideas about schooling children into practice (Manno, Finn, Bierlein, & Vanourek, 1998).

Legislative Considerations

Charter schools are shaped not only by those establishing the school but also by the legislation that establishes the parameters for charter schools. In theory, the charter concept is an invitation to establish a school that is a center of innovation, free from the mandates of a bureaucratic system. In practice, each state establishes its own level of autonomy and freedom and its own brand of innovation for schools.

Advocates characterize charter school legislation as being either "strong" or "weak." Despite the obvious positive connotation, the label of strong charter school legislation does not necessarily indicate legislation that is good, rather legislation that actively promotes the creation of charter schools. Generally, strong charter legislation affords schools a higher degree of autonomy than standard public school mandates, allows more than one charter authorizing body, does not set caps on the number of charter schools allowed in the state, and makes provisions for the state per-pupil funding to follow the child to the charter school of his/her choice. Charter legislation characterized as weak does not provide this level of latitude (Hadderman, 1998). It is predictable then that most of the charter schools in the United States exist in states with strong charter laws. Not surprisingly, Arizona is widely considered as the state with the most charter-friendly laws (Sack, 2002).

For an overview of charter legislation by state, visit the Center for Education Reform Web site or see the report "A Comparison of Charter School Legislation."

Charter school legislation in each state embraces unique organizing principles; therefore, the composition and operation of charter schools across the country are highly diverse, making general characterizations difficult. These organizing principles govern the sponsorship of the charter, the degree of autonomy afforded to the schools, the number of schools permitted, the regulatory expectations, and the performance expectations (Hadderman, 1998).

There are, however, some additional observations that can be made about charter schools. They tend to be smaller than traditional public schools (fewer than 200 students), are generally newly created schools rather than schools that were converted from traditional public schools, are more racially diverse, and enroll slightly fewer students with special education and limited-English-proficiency needs than the average public school in their state (Education Commission of the States, 1997).

The appeals of charter schools are numerous and have won wide support from Republicans and Democrats alike, as is witnessed by the support of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Education stakeholders from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds have embraced the charter movement. The widespread appeal of charter schools is countered, however, by an equally passionate and vocal group of opponents who see charter schools as a harmful option in the movement to improve public education. Many of the fears and concerns surrounding charter schools center on the idea that traditional public schools will suffer as children, teachers, and dollars flow out of schools and into charters. Many have voiced concerns that as dollars flow out of public schools and follow a small number of children to charter schools, the already limited funds in traditional public schools will be squeezed even tighter for the students and teachers who remain. In addition, there are concerns about which children are leaving and what that means for those who are left behind.

This dynamic debate continues. Often, debate centers on one of the following three themes:

There is little doubt that the interplay among these themes is currently impacting education and ultimately will result in significant changes. This Critical Issue briefly outlines some of the questions emerging from these three themes.

Equity Topic of Debate:
Will charter schools "cream" the most academically successful students from the public school system?

A primary concern voiced early in the charter school movement was that charter schools would serve to take the most academically successful students out of traditional public schools, leaving behind those students with the greatest academic challenges and needs, primarily poor and minority students. There was great concern that "creaming" the best students off the top might leave traditional public schools with even greater challenges and a further segregated system of education.

Contrary to these fears, charter schools have proven to be very diverse. According to the Fourth Year Report of Charter Schools from the U.S. Department of Education, "The State of Charter Schools 2000," 48 percent of charter school students are white, as compared to 59 percent of students in traditional public schools. Charter schools in Connecticut, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Texas enroll a significantly higher percentage of students of color than the public schools. In addition, charter schools enroll a slightly higher percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch than do the traditional public schools in those states (RPP International, 2000).

Quality Topic of Debate:
Do charter schools enhance student achievement and public education in general?

The charter school experiment is also an experiment in education research and development (Manno et al., 1998). The degree to which charter schools have been able to act as research and development centers is unclear. It is difficult for many new charter schools to address the daily challenges of running a school and meeting the educational needs of the students. Therefore, sharing promising practices and lessons learned with the larger public school community can be an unrealistic expectation when the additional time, effort, and cost are considered. In addition, many charter schools have met opposition from the traditional public school district and learning community during the formation of their schools. In many of these instances, the public school district or school board was one of the most vocal opponents to the formation of a new neighborhood charter school. To come together for the sake of sharing best practices can be very difficult, though some charter schools have had success by building bridges in the community and reaching out to neighboring schools (see Illustrative Case: North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School later in this issue).

Policy Topic of Debate:
How will differences between charter school accountability and public school accountability impact education policy and practices?

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools, freed from regulation in exchange for greater accountability. By law, charter schools are accountable to the government agencies that authorize their existence by (1) faithful execution of the charter, and (2) demonstrated student learning. Also, by law, charter schools are accountable to parents and teachers for student performance, instruction, and school climate. Beyond that, no single generalization about charter school accountability yet is likely to apply because of the diversity afforded in charter contracts that vary from state to state and charter to charter (Hill, Lake, Celio, Campbell, Herdman, & Bulkley, 2001).

What is clear is that charter school method of accountability is quite different than the accountability relationships that are required in traditional public education. "Charter schools are directly accountable to many different parties, and must balance the needs of all their constituencies without losing the support of any. In conventional public education, government does the balancing" (Hill et al., 2001).

For further information regarding charter school accountability, visit New American Schools. Here, affiliate Education Performance Network's policy brief: Charter Schools and the New Accountability Provisions, by authors Paul Herdman, Nelson Smith, and Cynthia Skinner, explores the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act's accountability provisions on public charter schools.

The issue of accountability is often used as a core argument in favor of charter schools. Most states hold charter schools to the same student outcomes measures as other public schools, and surveys collected by RPP International reveal that 96.4 percent of charter schools use standardized assessments, as well as other measures. Many state charter coordinators who participated in a separate study indicated that their state law set broad expectations for charter schools by requiring the establishment of measurable goals for student performance, participation in state testing requirements, and meeting state standards (Anderson et al., 2000).

Given the unique and diverse missions of charter schools, state charter laws often give the schools authority to set their own performance goals—a key argument for those who question whether the performance of charter schools should be judged by the relative improvement of their students based on the school's unique mission and goals, or by state performance standards, like other public schools (Wohlstetter & Griffin, 1998).

Together, the themes of equity, quality, and policy that pervade charter school topics of debate suggest both immediate and long-term impact on education. At minimum, the debate has provided a forum in which to re-examine public education systems and processes. As the debate continues, it is likely to impact practice and policies that govern how, and how well, students learn. With that in mind, the following goals and action options address elements of charter school success.


Many who watch American education will cite the publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) as the beginning of a wave of activity aimed at improving student performance. Standards, new accountability systems, and changes in pedagogy are familiar. Another set of changes allows parents more options. School choice, magnet schools, and public school vouchers are among these options.

While charter schools do allow additional options for parents, this advantage is a by-product of the fundamental difference between charter schools and other schools. Charter schools are about how a school is governed. Charter schools operate under a contract with an authorizing body which may be a state or local school board, a university, a specifically created body, or even a mayor.

For those who conceived of charter schools, the goal is to improve student achievement by fostering innovation in many small research and development sites. Innovation occurs because the charter school is free from the rules and regulations that pertain to traditional public schools.

Legislators and educational policy people argue that the schools will:

As opposed to those whose goals concern broad public policy achievements, the organizers of charter schools are motivated by the opportunity to realize an educational vision without the "red tape" involved in the traditional public school. They may want to use a particular approach to teaching and learning, perhaps multi-age education, work-oriented curriculum, or back to basics. They may also want to serve a population that is often not well served in the traditional school system—unwed parents, under achieving students, non-English speakers, or students with special talents. Often they want to change the way the school day and/or calendar is organized, perhaps by having students meet for fewer days with longer hours, or by running school eleven months a year. Having a strong professional development component is highly attractive to many organizers and teachers.

Although some parents are also the organizers of charter schools, most are interested because they see an opportunity to send their children to a school that is more aligned with their philosophical beliefs and values than is the traditional public school. They may want a school that is small or one that they feel is safe. Many are attracted to the opportunity to be more involved in the day-to-day operation, either in management or in the classroom.

Therefore, the goals for charter schools can only be outlined in the most general sense. Because charter schools are given a high degree of autonomy and latitude to define their own goals, these goals run the gamut—from raising student test scores for at-risk students to providing an agrarian-focused curriculum that promotes community building.

Despite the broad range of goals for each school, we do see several key elements of success that emerge from schools that are managing to meet and even exceed their own goals. Most successful charter schools evidence the following:


For the parent who would like to know if a charter school is available for his or her child, the best step is to access the state department of education either through the government pages of the telephone book or by Web site. Most states with charter legislation have resource individuals at the state department of education. The Web site of the U. S. Department of Education is a good place to find state-specific information including which states have charter legislation.

Organizers of charter schools might begin planning by contacting resource individuals at their state department of education in order to become familiar with their state law and the services that can be provided by the department. They may also utilize the resources of a growing number of support organizations available to assist in areas such as financing, business planning, accountability and reporting, technical assistance, and more. These organizations are listed in the Online Resources section at the end of this document.

Legislators and public policy people in states without charter school laws might begin their work by visiting the Web sites of the National Charter School Clearinghouse, Charter Friends, or the Education Commission of the States. These resources will link the reader to the laws of other states and an analysis of those laws. The Implementation Pitfalls section of this issue suggests several articles that will guide the policymaker toward a complete and effective law.

Legislators and public policy people in states with charter laws have an ongoing need to monitor and improve their laws. They want to be sure that their legislation does not constrain the development of innovative schools. They also must assure that appropriate accountability systems are in place and that schools are being well monitored. For legislators and policy people, a number of organizations provide support. Included are the Education Commission of the States and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, a new organization developed by and for the authorizers.

IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Of the more than 2,300 charter schools that have opened within the past decade, only about 7 percent have closed their doors. For some, that number is reasonable and a certain number of school closings is to be expected in a market-driven experiment such as charter schools. For others, the notion of a school closing its doors is highly troublesome. Children attending those schools were part of an experiment and the experiment failed them, leading to disruption and inconsistency at the hands of an organization that left them with an inadequate educational experience.

The questions of what constitutes failure for a charter school and how that is addressed differs among states. What is clear, however, is that schools that are struggling have faced certain challenges and pitfalls. It is valuable to examine the common struggles and pitfalls of charter schools.

Following are common mistakes in charter schools that fail:

  1. The most common problem facing charter schools, particularly newly created schools, is financing. Resource limitations can throw an incredible wrench into the operation of a charter school, particularly during startup. Charter schools generally have great difficulty accessing financing for adequate facilities and program funding that are generally made available to schools on a districtwide basis. This speaks to an issue of scale. Charter schools must consider all the same needs as a district—facilities, books, transportation, building maintenance, food, and office staffing. Even though charter schools are much smaller than an entire district, some of their costs will remain fixed, making it very expensive when the cost is shared across the funding from 100 students rather than the funding from thousands or tens of thousands of students.

    Some charter schools have received generous funding from private, business, and philanthropic donors to address such startup and operational costs. In addition, the amount of federal funding has continued to increase dramatically over the past five years in both Democratic and Republican administrations. This increase in federal funding is most likely the result of the decreasing numbers of charters that cite start-up funding as a major obstacle—down to 39 percent in 1999 from 59 percent in 1998 (Nelson & Berman, 2000).

To learn more about the evolving discussion related to financing charters, read and listen to video commentary on "Vouchers and Charter Schools: The Latest Evidence," an event from Brown Center on Education Policy's Issues in Education Series and the Annie E. Casey Foundation at the Brooking Institution Web site.

  1. Charter schools often face opposition from traditional public school constituents—school boards, teachers unions, and state education agencies (Hadderman, 1998).

  2. Turnover and turmoil among boards and staff. By definition, innovation is experimental; the potential for conflict within such an atmosphere is strong. Realizing a vision requires personal investment on the part of participants as well as a high level of consensus to achieve a shared vision, factors which can be challenging to address.

  3. Loosely based policies regarding school applications. Wohlstetter and Griffin (1998) suggest that founders of charter schools should be more specific about the following four areas:

Parents of children in charter schools have few risks and much to gain. They can "walk with their feet" anytime they wish and return to the traditional public school or exercise the private school option if they have the financial means. To keep families, charter school leadership and staff work hard to satisfy them.

With over a ten-year history of charter schools, the research is clear about the difficulties for those who organize charter schools—foremost is financial. In many states no funds are available for start-up or for facilities. In recent years, federal assistance in these areas has helped somewhat.

Organizers of charter schools must manage an educational endeavor and a business one. The burden of handling both these responsibilities can easily overwhelm an individual and a team who are more likely motivated and skilled in the education side of the operation.

While charter school organizers may be relieved of many of the rules and regulations imposed on traditional public schools, assessment of students and reporting of results is still required. The requirements were somewhat clear when the responsibility to report was to the authorizing body only. However, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 2002, known as the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, also imposes reporting requirements that complicate the responsibility.

The reader who is interested in more detail about accountability and the new ESEA should go to New American Schools and read the Policy Brief entitled "Charter Schools and the New Federal Accountability Provisions" by Herdman, Smith, and Skinner (2002). Another analysis of ESEA is found at

Another problem, not uncommon in traditional schools, is sustaining an educational vision. It may be easier in a charter school than a traditional school since, in charter schools, teachers are hired and retained because they share the vision. However, even in a charter school as leadership and teaching staff change, the vision may fade. Those who are successful say that a vision requires constant attention.

Fortunately, as the number of charter schools has grown, so has a system of support. These support services may be based in universities, may be independent, or may be located in departments of education. The U. S. Department of Education offers technical and financial assistance as well. Many of the Web sites of these support organizations are listed in the Online Resources section at the end of this issue.

For the legislator or educational policy person, the stakes involved in making the charter schools concept successful are high and the opportunities for failure are many. The law and the authorizing body created by the law must strike a careful balance between such restrictive requirements that few, if any, schools are organized and such permissiveness that faulty designs and implementation are allowed to continue. When only a few schools apply, the range and quality of innovation is insufficient to affect change. When bad designs are approved and bad implementation is allowed to continue, the failures are not only damaging from a public relations perspective but also, and more significantly, they are also damaging to the students and families involved.

Reporting and accountability systems must be in place so that monitoring of performance will occur fairly and accurately. In the monitoring of the schools, the authorizer must balance over zealous control with patient awareness that starting a new school involves growing pains. Authorizers also must be aware that schools with special missions and special populations may require special accountability systems. Negotiation may be required to implement these systems under state and federal requirements.

Several organizations now provide support for legislators, educational policy experts, and authorizing agencies. See the Online Resources section of this issue with particular attention to the National Charter Authorizers and the Education Commission of the States.

Finally, it behooves those who discuss the charter concept to help the public understand that the goals of charter schools have to do with a change in the governance of the schools rather than a change in pedagogy. No pitfall could be greater than having the charter school concept judged by the wrong goals. Whether any one charter school has higher test scores than a traditional public school is not as important as whether organizers have experimented with new ways of teaching, organizing the school day and calendar, developing the practice of teaching, reaching special students, and more. If these schools find new ways of conducting the business of teaching and learning, students and families will be attracted to them. Furthermore, staff and leadership of traditional public schools will pay attention, not only because they may loose students to the "competition" but also because, as educators, they want to incorporate effective practice.

For more on a framework for thinking about whether the charter schools movement is working, see "What does it mean to ask: "Is 'Charter Schools' Working?" by Ted Kolderie at

For a comprehensive review of the evaluations of charter schools, see "A Decade of Charter Schools: From Theory to Practice," Bulkley, K and Fesler, J, Consortium for Policy Research in Education, April 2002 at


The charter concept invites and allows innovation. Although many local school boards have created schools that embody some of the ideas seen in charter schools, a school board may find it difficult to embrace innovation that ranges too far from the desires of most parents and students. However, the charter school, which is usually small, can appeal to a particular clientele, make its unique characteristics very clear from the beginning, satisfy its clients, and potentially provide lessons for traditional schools.

While some charter schools may not seem too different from some public schools, often they are different from the schools within their own district. Most grow from an educational vision. Imagine, for example, a "back to basics" elementary school; a high school in which students perform educational tasks and demonstrate competence before a panel of peers, teachers, parents, and community leaders; and a multi-age elementary school. Charter organizers often adopt one of the several school designs supported by the New American Schools.

In addition to being designed around a particular educational vision, charter schools are often different for other reasons. For example, many charter schools want to serve a population that is often not well served by the traditional public school. One school gathered recent high school dropouts, gave them individual attention, a real-world curriculum, and lots of support. In three years, 90 percent went on to college. Another school in a large urban district appeals to young parents by offering child care, parenting classes, and social services. Schools may serve students with artistic talents or those with hearing and visual limitations.

While parents may be the organizers of charter schools, it is just as likely that educators, community members, or even organizations may organize them. Often it is a combination of groups. One university-based center, supported by a major grant, is shepherding the formation of five small high schools each designed to serve a specific population.

Sometimes strong parental involvement is what draws people to charter schools. Parents may be asked to contribute time and effort as lunch monitors, classroom aides, or active participants in homework. Often parent education, social networks, and social services are included. Before and after-school childcare is provided in some charter schools.

In the case of a small school, it is easier to use a nontraditional administrative structure. Some schools have a team of teachers, rather than a principal, managing the school. Often the team is supported by a business manager. In some schools, teachers are independent contractors, with responsibilities clearly stated and compensation linked to successful performance.

Professional development may be the focus for some schools. In one school, students meet four days a week, but teachers meet for five. On that fifth day, teachers meet, plan, and learn. Designed to foster a coherent curriculum, the school also appeals to teachers who want continuous improvement in their practice. One charter school invites other schools in its district to participate in the professional development program and thereby directly influences the quality of teaching in the traditional schools in the district.

Financing is a challenge for any charter school and some have turned to community organizations that provide funding and space. Some charter schools buy services from the local school district.

Location may be the nontraditional element. One charter school is in a children's museum in a major city. Schools focusing on work-based education are often located in an industrial work place. One of the first charter schools is located in three storefronts in rural Minnesota.

Other innovative concepts will continue to emerge. Indeed, it is the promise of the charter movement that the parameters of traditional schooling will be expanded, even broken, as individuals move an idea into practice.

For readers who want more examples or want to know the names and locations of charter schools embracing specific innovations, see "How Charter Schools Are Different: Lessons and Implications From a National Study" (Manno, et al., 1988). Another good source of ideas is the Web page of each state having charter school legislation.

Despite challenges, the opportunities to improve the education experience for students, staff, and community fuels the charter school movement. Among the schools meeting these challenges is the North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School, founded in 1998. This elementary school serving Chicago's urban student population is the result of a charter awarded to the Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago. North Kenwood/Oakland (NKO) Charter School grew out of work done by the Center for School Improvement in some of the city's most difficult elementary schools (

In this instance, the charter school was built on the solid ground of research. It is an instance of research evolving into practice. In proposing and launching the charter school, the center drew upon years of experience working with some of the challenged schools in the city to develop a vision for NKO. Unlike most charter schools, NKO's vision calls for the school not only to serve a group of students from across the city, but also to serve as a demonstration and learning site for Chicago's urban teachers.

In theory, charter schools are given a high level of autonomy to explore and develop new and creative ways to serve the needs of students. The knowledge gained about what works with students can then benefit the larger education community. For most charter schools, the challenge of consolidating and then sharing that information with educators outside the school is incredibly difficult. North Kenwood has developed, as part of its mission, a forum for doing just that.

The Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago convenes and serves a network of Chicago public schools. The North Kenwood/Oakland Charter School serves as the professional site for the professional development activities and as the site where programs in literacy, mathematics, science, technology, and the arts are modeled and tested.

The school has also created a mini-sabbatical program, which allows other public school teachers to join NKO teachers in the classroom for two weeks to observe and learn. Substitute teachers are provided to cover for teachers while they are away on sabbatical at North Kenwood/Oakland. Following the two weeks at NKO, teachers return to their schools with the NKO teacher they have been observing to implement and practice what they have learned (


Charter Friends National Network Directory of Charter School Contacts lists contact information by state.

Center on Reinventing Public Education's 2002 New Schools Handbook


Online Resources

Posted: 2002
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