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Why Markets May Best Promote Care in Education.


Care ethics is a normative moral theory whose proponents argue that the morally salient feature of relationships between people (or between people and things, such as our environment) is whether those relationships exhibit appropriate care. Care ethicists have argued that there are two elements to good caring relations, though theorists differ in what importance they assign to each condition. Over the past twenty years, care ethicists have increasingly argued that care ethics need not be limited to a theory about personal relationships (among family members, friends, or known others), but can be extended to deal with political philosophy and public policy, offering an alternative (or needed supplement) to theories of justice.

Probably because care ethicists are often sensitive to the role of proximity (geographical, familial, emotional, etc.) to care, care ethicists often favor a decentralized role for government where either government bureaucracies do not attempt to provide care directly, or if they do, it is through local governments who might be more responsive to individual differences and needs. Concerning the role of "carers," Nel Noddings writes, "We do no care, in the direct sense, through welfare grants, coercive schooling, or military action. We have to work toward a world in which 'it is possible to be good'--one in which carers are enabled to care without sacrificing their own lives...." (1) Because people have different needs than might be provided for in a centralized (and hence, usually standardized) policy or institution, Daniel Engster suggests that "care theory... favors a more flexible and decentralized policy approach that offers individuals more choice and input in determining how to care for themselves and others." (2) Because caring is most natural and effective directly (because one can be most attentive and responsive to those one knows and sees), care ethicists most often advocate for (centralized) governments not to provide care directly, but rather, create and maintain conditions under which caring relationships between people are fostered and care flows most easily and effectively between people.

Many care ethicists are skeptical about care ethics' compatibility with educational services offered primarily via markets. Though Nel Noddings is troubled by the trends toward standardization that American public schools have undergone over the past several decades, she worries that "to treat schools like businesses is a category mistake of significant proportions" and that leaving educational services to be bought and sold on the market threatens the idea of schools as "centers of stability and community." (3) Virginia Held has similar concerns, arguing, "Once an educational institution has been taken over by the market, anything other than economic gain is unlikely to be its highest priority, since a corporation's responsibility to its shareholders leads it to try to maximize economic gain." (4)

In what follows, I will argue that markets in educational services may be more likely than government-provided public education to achieve care ethicists' stated goals of seeking to create more caring relations in the world. Particularly, I will argue that, according to care ethicists' definition of care, there are compelling theoretical and empirical reasons to suppose that markets in education will produce more caring relations between producers and consumers than will public school systems.

Before we begin, I should clarify several things I am not arguing. This article is not a defense of care ethics as an approach to education policy or--maybe less obviously--a defense of educational markets. (5) My argument is conditional: If we want education policy consistent with an ethic of care, then there are several reasons why educational markets will, on balance, do a better job at achieving that goal than a system of government-provided public schools. Additionally, I will not be arguing for any particular shape that educational markets should take (whether government does or does not redistribute funds to guarantee educational access to all; whether, or what, regulations are put on what consumers may buy or producers must do, etc.). Those are necessary discussions to have, of course, but first we must decide whether educational markets or a system of public schools is most likely to achieve outcomes consistent with an ethic of care.

I should also stress that I offer the following thoughts in the spirit of nonideal political theory. I do not claim that markets create perfect caring relationships but only that markets stand the best chance of approaching the types of caring relationships that care ethicists want to see. Care ethics itself seems to be written largely in the realm of nonideal theory: How can we achieve the best moral results in a world where situations exist where our ability to care about and for others is finite and often partial (i.e., where we do not generally care about everyone equally and do not have energy or time enough to care for everyone who needs it). Therefore, I do not claim that markets in education services will necessarily create ideal caring relationships; only that given the world we live in, they might be the best way to realize the kind of education system that care ethicists want to see.

Attention and Responsiveness in Educational Markets

Private schools operating within markets are more likely to be attentive and responsive to parents and students than public schools. This is not, though, primarily because private schools are more likely to adapt their policies to parent and student input. It is because markets allow parents and students to find schools that best suit their needs and allow entrepreneurs to create schools that attempt to satisfy unserved needs in a way neither group can in a public school system.

Care ethicists tend to emphasize attentiveness and responsiveness (on the part of the carer) as necessary conditions of caring relations. Care ethicists conventionally define attentiveness as our ability to perceive the needs of others, and responsiveness as our ability to meet the needs of others and adjust how we respond to others based on how they react to our efforts. Joan Tronto gives a concise description of attentiveness as "being able to perceive needs in self and others and to perceive them with as little distortion as possible." (6) For Nel Noddings, attentiveness means more than simply being able to perceive the needs of others; it is being momentarily "engrossed in (or receptively attentive to) the needs expressed in an encounter." (7)

It is not enough for caring, of course, to attentively decipher others' needs; one needs to follow that with an attempt to address those needs. Responsiveness to need is the competence we show in addressing the needs we find in others. Responsiveness is not only about whether we respond, but also how we respond--and in cases where the caring relationship is ongoing, whether (and to what effect) we adjust our continuing care efforts in response to the changing context of the other.

Public schools in the United States and many other countries are organized bureaucratically, vesting authority for creating and changing school policies at least in districts (local school boards and superintendents, in the United States) and often in state and national bodies (state boards of education and legislatures, the national legislature and Department of Education). The farther removed centralized decision-making authority is from parents and students, the less responsive those systems are likely to be. Even in public school systems where decision making is done quite locally, concerned citizens' two options for providing feedback to schools are to vote in school board elections and to voice concerns to the school board and local superintendents. Neither method is likely to yield the kind of attentiveness or responsiveness that care ethicists argue is necessary for the caring administration of social services.

Voting for school board members has several limitations, including elections being held at several year intervals, majoritarianism (which leaves those who did not vote for the winning candidate disaffected), and a lack of guarantee that the winning candidate will (try to) enact policies in their platform once in office. Next, because policy changes generally must be district-wide, any changes enacted by school boards threaten to alienate others in the district. Finally, contra several care ethicists' concern that priority go with the needs of the most vulnerable--voice tends to favor those who have time enough to attend school board meetings, can produce the most sophisticated and articulate arguments, and have the wherewithal to "politic" for their cause (forge political connections, organize turnout on behalf of a particular issue, etc.). (8) For these reasons, exercising voice to elected or appointed officials will often be an ineffective way to ensure that public school systems exercise care toward their consumers.

Will markets produce schools that are more attentive and responsive to parent and student need? It is hard to say definitely. Research comparing public to private schools tends to focus on academic performance measures, from which information about school responsiveness can only be inferred. (9) Little research exists specifically on the responsiveness of public and private schools. One study by Bauch and Goldring indicates that, adjusting for school size, surveyed parents found private Catholic schools to be generally more responsive to their needs (providing information to parents, responding to parent concerns) than single-focused or multi-focused magnet schools of choice. (10) While the study does not compare these perceptions of responsiveness to those of public school parents, most surveyed parents appear to have chosen out of the public schools, and the study suggests that at least one type of private school has been judged by parents to be more responsive than "traditional" public schools or public magnet schools of choice.

A more comprehensive study of British school choice in the late 1980s and early 1990s finds that, on balance, educational markets did lead to more responsiveness on the part of schools of choice. (11) The study demonstrates that schools of choice showed increased responsiveness particularly in their eagerness to address concerns about academic substance, or convincing parents of "increased attention being given to raising academic performance, as measured by public examination results." (12) School choice also led to an increased "movement towards greater openness by schools to families generally and to their local communities," (13) which indicates a certain type of responsiveness induced by school choice. The study, however, noted that schools tended to be more responsive to groups with higher economic and social capital and less responsive to parents when it came to decisions about curriculum, discipline, and the schools' internal affairs.

There are several reasons to think that private schools might be more responsive to families and students than public schools. First, private schools arguably face a type of market pressure that public schools do not, where families who believe their needs are not being addressed can take their children--and funding--out of the school. Second, both administrators and teachers (the former much more than the latter) generally have more autonomy in private than in public schools, (14) which means they have greater flexibility than their public-school counterparts in setting/revising school and classroom policies. Third, private schools often have the freedom to organize around a mission (a certain approach to pedagogy, a religious mission, etc.), catering to those potential customers who share that mission, which often relates to various types of care. Private schools, for instance, may cater to certain types of families (maybe religious ones) or students (maybe those with specific learning needs) that the school thinks are not being adequately responded to by other schools. Those families may well find the most attentive and responsive care at particular schools organized around those types of needs, rather than at a public school whose membership has a more diverse set of needs.

There is some evidence, however, indicating that private schools of choice are not necessarily more responsive than public schools. Two qualitative studies of California public and private schools show that public and private schools are equally likely to take account of and respond to consumer feedback and demand (and that whether they do so may be contingent on the socioeconomic status of the school's clientele). (15) Similarly, James Tooley's description of the private SABIS International Schools Network depicts a private schooling company that is heavily standardized with a patented curricular system and, thus, is inflexible to consumer demand. (16)

Even if we assume, though, that private schools are no more likely than public schools to modify their operations by taking consumer feedback into account, there is still reason to think they will achieve results more amenable to care ethicists' conditions of attentiveness and responsiveness than public schools. Because consumers in markets will have more choices and exit rights in a market than a public school system, families may choose between schools in order to pick that which best meets their children's (and the family's) needs. While Benveniste et al, concluded that private schools were no more likely to respond to parental input than public schools, they did note that "the ability of parents to influence what happens in private schools appears to be greatest at the moment of their initial choice of educational establishment or if they exercise the option to exit to an alternative school." (17) Even if families can only choose between several inflexible schooling options (each offered on a "take it as is or leave it" basis), this will likely result in families finding schools that better fit their children's needs than a public school system (where, per above, the most impactful ways to change the public school curriculum are appealing to and voting for school board representatives).

Someone might object that this is not a caring relationship per se. Schools set policies they believe will help gain and keep customers; parents and children choose the school they believe fits their needs; and those families who are unsatisfied exit their contract with their current school to find a new school. Caring seems to demand more than this--that the people who provide and receive care at the school engage in a more intimate relationship where the care providers are genuinely motivated by the needs of the child. This criticism has merit, but two responses are possible. First, there is nothing prohibiting such a caring relationship from happening at a private school; it may even be more likely owing to there being a more direct relationship between those who are paying for the school's services (the family) and the school than there would be in a tax-supported public school (more on that below). Second, I am not claiming that private schools in a market will make for perfectly caring relationships, but only that, thanks to the exit option built into markets, they stand a better chance of allowing people to find relationships that they judge as satisfactory.

While it is an open question whether educational markets will result in schools that are more attentive and responsive in incorporating parental feedback, it can be argued that the market system allows families to be more attentive and responsive in their purchase of educational services for their children. The market's allowance of choice and exit rights to parents with which they can attentively and responsively choose schools for their children fits with Daniel Engster's conception of care ethics, which "favors a more flexible and decentralized policy approach that offers individuals more choice and input in determining how to care for themselves and others." (18) Unless there is reason to think that public schools will be more responsive than private schools (and neither Rothstein et al. nor Benveniste et al. found public schools to be more or less responsive), the choice and exit rights present in markets should lead to results where students are more likely to have their needs met than they would in public school systems.

Markets Will Create and Nurture Caring Relations

One goal most care ethicists have when applying care ethics to social policy is a world where people can and do freely enter into caring relationships with others and where those relationships are best able to flourish. Nel Noddings puts the point well when she suggests that social policy sufficiently guided by an ethic of care will find policy makers "choos[ing] a theory of justice that aims to establish or restore conditions in which natural caring might flourish rather than to invoke an entirely different moral approach or to attempt caring directly." (19) For similar reasons, Daniel Engster recommends that a caring government "should shift the delivery of care as much as possible to the personal and local level, facilitating the care of individuals primarily by providing support for parents, families, caregivers, and local organization." (20)

Yet, care ethicists almost uniformly view the idea that markets can facilitate genuinely caring relations with skepticism. Joan Tronto writes that markets, with their impersonality and motives of self-interest, are unlikely to incorporate genuine care, which is "distinctive because of its intimate nature." (21) Virginia Held is similarly skeptical that markets can foster genuine care; for Held, "once an educational institution has been taken over by the market, anything other than economic gain is unlikely to be its highest priority," a value certainly not easily reconcilable with other-oriented care. (22)

Many care ethicists (and other critics of markets) believe that markets are impersonal and fear that educational markets will reward schools that are simply the most cost-efficient and least personal. Recall Joan Tronto's suggestion that "another serious problem for care on the market is the way in which care is distinctive because of its intimate nature." For Tronto, "us[ing] the language of the market... ignores the fact that care is intimate, often involving an emotional attachment" in a way that impersonal markets "cannot or will not likely provide." (23)

In fact, as long as markets are driven by consumer demand and choice, companies providing services in markets will be as impersonal or personal as customers demand. Joan Tronto is right to note that education and other care services are costly and not easily automated. But this does not mean that markets cannot offer personal or personalized services. Of course, markets do offer such services: yoga instruction, career counseling, and (of course) private schooling are examples of personalized services that are offered through markets. Economist Randy Simmons explains that, in markets, "products that are easily produced at low cost lend themselves to mass production and few firms; complex, highly individualized products or services are apt to be offered by many firms, none of which has a large share of the market." (24) The fact that education is not easily automated because it requires personalization does not mean it could not be offered on the market; it just means that the market would most likely be populated by more small firms rather than few large firms, because the service is less amenable to standardization.

In fact, there is good evidence to support the idea that markets are impersonal when they need to be and personal when they need to be. Price and Arnould examined the formation of "commercial friendships" (25) between hairstylists and customers, where their surveys not only indicated that a certain kind of friendship and loyalty did develop between customers and hairstylists, but that hair salons often recognize the value of encouraging such personalized "commercial friendships" as a successful business move. In interviews with patrons of a local Chicago restaurant, Rosenbaum et al. (26) found that the restaurant functioned as a "third space" where supportive bonds formed between patrons and staff. In a larger study, Cowen (27) found not only that similar support bonds formed between hairdressers, family-practice attorneys, industrial supervisors, and bartenders and their respective clients, but also that employees felt professionally good about nurturing such bonds with clients. In these cases--all services that require personal interaction between producer and consumer--producers not only found ways to deliver good service without sacrificing personal relations between themselves and consumers, but also found the maintenance of such personal relations to be a central part of providing that service. As long as education is a service whose effectiveness is related to personal interaction between producers and consumers, there is every reason to suppose that educational markets will reward those who nurture those interactions. (28)

None of this is to say that caring relationships cannot develop between public school faculty/staff and public school students/families. I have only argued that, contra some care ethicists' depictions, markets can and do provide services that carry significant elements of care between producer and consumer. But is there reason to think that educational markets may produce more or better caring relations between consumer and producer than do than public school systems?

There is. This partly has to do with what I have argued in preceding sections: that relationships formed in markets will be more attentive, responsive, direct, and reciprocal between producers and consumers than those within a public system. Also, however, there is a developing body of evidence showing that the very act of trade between parties produces empathic bonds between them.

Research by neuroeconomist Paul Zak and colleagues have demonstrated that the act of trade between parties increases the level of oxytocin--the neural chemical seemingly responsible for empathy and compassion--between parties. (29) If the act of trade does tend to increase empathy between traders, this would certainly be a reason to prefer relations developed through educational markets than through tax-supported public school systems. As mentioned previously, public school systems are funded indirectly by taxpayers paying local, state, and national taxes to governmental bodies, which choose how to allocate such funding toward schools and other public works. Families whose children attend public schools, then, did not directly pay for their children to attend those schools. By contrast, school services bought on the market are the product of a direct transaction between families and schools. Schools know that the students who attend the school come from families who paid the school for their services, and consumers know that their money went to a school they chose to support and have their children attend. The sort of direct transaction, in some sense, binds the interests of each party with the other.

Here, an objector might note that, even if direct transaction increases empathy between parties, the transaction between the family and school is still indirect, and that quite possibly, the degree to which trade increases empathy is affected by the size of the organization one is trading with. It may be that a family writing a tuition check to a local small school will increase the school's motivation to attend to their child's needs, but paying tuition by credit card to a large company with a chain of schools will do little to increase the empathy of those who work in the school the child attends. This is a legitimate concern. Yet, even if this is so, it seems more likely that some empathy might be created by trade (of tuition for education) with a private school because, however large the organization being traded with, the transaction is still more direct than with a tax-funded school system. Moreover, this problem (if there is one) could be solved by regulations putting a limit to the size of companies that provide schooling services.

To my overall project, it can be objected that the care most of us (and care ethicists) aim for is between teacher and student more than between school and family, and that any direct relation in a market for education will be between parents (the payer) and school (service provider). This is correct, but two responses are possible. First, we should not undervalue the forging of direct and potentially caring relations between parents and the school, especially given that the other option is often a very indirect relation between these two parties (where public schools get their money from governments rather than parents directly). Second, the relation between teacher and student in a private system will likely be more direct than in a public system. In the former, the teacher is employed by the school, and the school has a direct relation to the parent; thus, the school may have more interest in ensuring that the teacher is meeting the needs of the child, as the school has a direct relation both with the family (who pays the school for service) and the teacher (whose work is necessary for the school's continued success and financial well-being). In a public system, the relation between teacher and child is potentially less direct, as the teacher is employed by the school district, funded by the parents indirectly, not through tuition but taxation. Caring teachers may receive more encouragement by private employers whose well-being depends on providing good service to paying parents (assuming the parents see meeting their children's needs as a condition of good service) than in a public school system, where schools are more beholden to governments for their budgets than to parents directly.

While there exist various degrees of choice within many public education systems--choice between public schools or teachers/programs within public schools, as well as charter and magnet schools--the fact that money transactions between parties help to create empathy may be one reason to prefer school choice among private providers. While choice is valuable within the public sector, any financial transactions between consumer and producer will be more direct in a private system where the consumer pays the producer directly. It could be objected that, in a private system, the money still goes from the consumer to the company who runs the school, and thus, there is no financial transaction between the consumer and teachers. This is true, but within a private system, there is a direct transaction between family and school, while in a public system, there is no direct transaction at all.


My case has been conditional: If one accepts the goals of creating a more caring system of education (in the way care ethicists most often conceive of care), then there is good reason to suppose that education markets will produce better results than public school systems. I have not argued either that care ethics is the superior moral theory by which to set public policy or that markets produce ideally caring results that perfectly align with care ethicists' conception of care, but only that markets likely do so better than public school systems, all things considered.

Importantly, I have not argued for what shape markets should take in education: Should there be a role for government in redistributing money via vouchers to families for educational use or should government stay out of education entirely? Should there be regulations limiting what forms of education people can purchase or what policies schools may set? While these questions are interesting, I have not dealt with them here, largely because--before talking about what shape educational markets should take--we must first discuss whether educational markets are morally preferable to public school systems. It may well be that in order to fully settle that question, more time and thought must be spent on figuring out what kind of market with what kind of role for government we are talking about.

For now, though, I hope to have spoken to many care ethicists' concerns that markets in care services (or education services particularly) are inimical to care theory. A market in educational services is likely to be more attentive, responsive, direct, and reciprocal and to sustain healthier caring relationships than governmentally administered public school systems.


(*) This article is a revised and expanded version of a previously published conference paper: "Of Care, Commerce, and Classrooms: Why Care in Education May Best Be Achieved through Markets," Philosophy of Education (Proceedings of the Conference of the Philosophy of Education Society) (2014): 398-405. The author thanks the respondent at that conference for her helpful remarks; see Carrie Nolan, "Viewing Caring Relations in Schools Through a Macro Lens," Philosophy of Education (2014): 406-8.

(1.) Nel Noddings, Starting at Home: Caring and Social Policy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 60.

(2.) Daniel Engster, The Heart of Justice: Care Ethics and Political Theory, 1 st ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 24.

(3.) Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 2005), xxi.

(4.) Virginia Held, "Care and the Extension of Markets," Hypatia 17, no. 2 (April 1, 2002): 27.

(5.) In this article, I will use the term markets to refer to any social space where goods and services are exchanged by people choosing between competing alternatives. My references to markets, then, are not limited to services being offered for-profit, or even necessarily for money. The market could also include barter exchanges, or nonprofit schools who charge some sort of tuition but are not motivated by making profit.

(6.) Joan C. Tronto, "An Ethic of Care," in Ethics in Community-Based Elder Care, ed. Martha B. Holstein and Phyllis B. Mitzen (New York: Springer. 2001). 62.

(7.) Nel Noddings, The Maternal Factor: Two Paths to Morality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 43.

(8.) For these reasons, and after an extensive review of the results of voice models of public service in health care and education (where public sector producers receive input directly from consumers in order to improve service), economist Julian Le Grand concluded that voice models "can violate a fundamental social democratic principle: that of the promotion of social justice and equality" and that "there is a respectable case for arguing that voice does not deliver equity." Julian Le Grand. The Other Invisible Hand: Delivering Public Services through Choice and Competition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), 118-19.

(9.) For a recent meta-analysis of such research, see William H. Jeynes, "School Choice and the Achievement Gap," Education and Urban Society 46, no. 2 (2014): 163-80.

(10.) Patricia A. Bauch and Ellen B. Goldring, '"Parent Involvement and School Responsiveness: Facilitating the Home-School Connection in Schools of Choice." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 17, no. 1 (1995): 1-21.

(11.) Philip Woods. Carl Bagley, and Ron Glattcr. School Choice and Competition: Markets in the Public Interest? (London: Routledge, 2005).

(12.) Woods, Bagley, and Glatter, School Choice and Competition, 186

(13.) Woods. Bagley, and Glatter, School Choice and Competition, 187.

(14.) Richard M. Ingersoll. Who Controls Teachers' Work?: Power and Accountability in Americas Schools (Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press), 2009; M. Danish Shakeel and Corey Deangelis, "Who Is More Free? A Comparison of the Decision-Making of Private and Public School Principals," Journal of School Choice 11, no. 3 (2017): 442-57.

(15.) Richard Rothstein, Martin Carnoy, and Luis Alberto Benveniste, Can Public Schools Learn from Private Schools?: Case Studies in the Public & Private Nonprofit Sectors (Washington. DC: Fxonomic Policy Institute, 1999), chap. 1; Luis Benveniste, Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein. All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? (New York: Routledge. 2003), chap. 3.

(16.) James Tooley, From Village School to Global Brand: Changing the World Through Education (London: Profile Books. 2012).

(17.) Benveniste, Carnoy, and Rothstein, All Else Equal, 122.

(18.) Engster, The Heart of Justice, 24.

(19.) Noddings, The Maternal Factor, 33.

(20.) Engster, The Heart of Justice, 73.

(21.) Joan C. Tronto, Caring Democracy: Markets, Equality, and Justice (New York: New York University Press, 2013). 123.

(22.) Held, "Care and the Extension of Markets," 27.

(23.) Tronto, Caring Democracy, 123.

(24.) Randy T. Simmons, Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure (Oakland, CA: Independent Institute, 2011), 166.

(25.) Linda L. Price and Eric J. Arnould, "Commercial Friendships: Service Provider--Client Relationships in Context," Journal of Marketing 63, no. 4 (October 1999): 38.

(26.) Mark S. Rosenbaum et al., "A Cup of Coffee with a Dash of Love: An Investigation of Commercial Social Support and Third-Place Attachment," Journal of Service Research 10, no. 1 (August 1, 2007): 43-59.

(27.) Emory L. Cowen, "Help Is Where You Find It: Four Informal Helping Groups," American Psychologist 37, no. 4 (1982): 385-95.

(28.) Some may worry that if consumers demand fewer personal educational services (perhaps valuing cost over personalization), educational markets may reward those who offer the cheapest and least personal services. This is certainly possible, but it should be noted that the other option is to offer only educational services that do not satisfy consumer demand (those that are more expensive and personal when consumers value less expensive and less personal). If care ethicists were to prefer the latter (on grounds that individuals may not always be the best judges of their needs, concerning which see Joan C. Tronto, Caring Democracy, 122), then we run the risk of violating the care ethicists' goals of encouraging attentiveness and responsiveness on the part of carers.

(29.) Zak has summarized much of this research on market transactions and oxytocin levels in Paul J. Zak, The Moral Molecule: The Source of Love and Prosperity (New York: Dutton, 2013), chap. 7. Also, see Paul J. Zak, "Moral Markets," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 77, no. 2 (February 2011): 212-33.

Kevin Currie-Knight

Teaching Assistant Professor, College of Education East Carolina University
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Date:Mar 22, 2019
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