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Lawrence Harmon

Define tutors as what they are: volunteers

The Match Charter Public High School on Commonwealth Avenue is one of Match’s three campuses.

Lane Turner/Globe staff

The Match Charter Public High School on Commonwealth Avenue is one of Match’s three campuses.

The first thing to know about the Match charter schools in Boston is that they are highly successful at raising the academic achievement of urban students from low-income backgrounds. The next thing to know is that Match is a favorite target of critics who see corporate conspiracies behind charter schools that operate free of union rules. And always assume that the better Match performs, the harder it gets hit.

That said, Match shot itself in the foot recently. At first glance, the flap over how best to classify and pay 153 tutors at its three schools seems like a minor matter. But it actually goes to the heart of local and national efforts to close the academic achievement gap between poor and better-off students.

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Match, which serves about 800 students in grades K-12, used to make a nice clean pitch to recent college graduates: Give us a year devoted to the intensive tutoring of urban kids and we’ll give you a $7,500 stipend and free housing in an exciting city. And for those tutors who want to enter the teaching profession after their year of service, Match can arrange a smooth path to certification and a low-cost master’s degree. It’s a great deal all around.

Last spring, however, Match decided it was necessary to “professionalize’’ its tutoring corps, according to chief operating officer Mike Larsson. No longer would the tutors be classified as volunteers who are exempt from federal and state minimum wage laws. Instead they would be paid $8 per hour, thereby raising their salaries to $13,600. That increase would turn out to be marginal, however, after Match withdrew $5,500 to cover the tutors’ living expenses.

It wouldn’t take long for confusion to arise over time card systems, health insurance reimbursements, and student loan deferments. The situation escalated recently when a former Match tutor wrote a provocative post on the “EduShyster” blog known for its dyspeptic attitude toward charter schools. He decried the system for “flooding the local market with cheap labor’’ and dishonoring labor rights built on the “blood, sweat, tears, and bones of American workers.’’ It was clearly over the top. But it was Match officials, not the author, who had decided to recast the tutors as low-wage workers instead of idealistic young men and women engaged in a year of community service. Match, which ended its formal relationship with the national and community service group AmeriCorps in 2011, had led with its chin.

The last thing anyone should want to do is “professionalize’’ the volunteer tutors who are increasingly being called upon to provide academic help, enrichment programs, and mentoring to disadvantaged students. For this special year of their lives, the focus of the tutors belongs on public service, not work rules and time sheets. They’ll get plenty of that later.

Well-trained tutors are needed to counter tight municipal budgets. It requires about two extra hours in a school day to make a difference in the academic lives of disadvantaged kids. Yet in Boston, city officials and the Boston Teachers Union can’t even find an affordable way to add a piddling 30 extra minutes to an unusually short, 6 ½ hour day. Boston school officials, wisely, have turned for help to City Year, Citizen Schools, and other respected tutoring organizations.

The issue goes to the heart of local and national efforts to close the academic achievement gap.

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The teachers’ union is pushing back by demanding that math tutors from the nonprofit Blueprint School Networks, which was created on the Match model, be part of the collective bargaining agreement. As a non-unionized charter school, Match doesn’t have to worry about such tactics. But by “professionalizing” its tutors, Match is playing into the hands of wider efforts to undermine volunteer tutor programs in district schools.

It’s hard to separate the role of the tutors from the high quality of teaching at Boston’s successful charter schools. But Larsson attributes a significant part of the schools’ success on statewide assessment tests to the tutoring program. Match 10th graders top other low-income students at high schools — district and charter — around the state. More to the point, they score higher than students in many upper- and middle-income communities. State education officials saw enough to commission Match tutors to work in a couple of high schools in Lawrence, a poverty-stricken city where the schools have been placed in state receivership.

Whether they choose to enter the field of education or not, tutors can look back on their year of service with great pride. But they aren’t professionals, especially as defined by the world of teacher salary schedules and labor grievances. Classifying them as such is a real disservice.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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