Meet Tom Allon, who wants to be your next education mayor

The most recent entrant to the 2013 mayoral race is a media publishing executive with no prior experience in government and a promise to run as an independent, business-minded pragmatist on a strong education platform.

But Tom Allon is no circa-2011 Michael Bloomberg, who was similarly green to politics when he became mayor in 2002. Instead, Allon, who operates a network of local newspapers that include politics-heavy City Hall and The Capital, is more of a community media mogul and his education proposals are more of a reaction — for better or worse — to the last nine years of Bloomberg’s leadership.

In an hour-long conversation at his small, cluttered corner office at Manhattan Media, Allon detailed his still-evolving education platform.

“I think Mayor Bloomberg has been an outstanding game-changer in education,” he said. “In the same way that Rudy Giuliani made this a safer city, I think that this mayor has pushed the needle dramatically and made education a priority. And for that he should be applauded.”

Winning mayoral control, lifting the charter school cap, and hiring Joel Klein to lead the city’s school system were among Bloomberg’s best accomplishments, in Allon’s opinion. Maintaining these policies, he said, are crucial to carrying that momentum into the next administration.

“You can’t neglect something and have it wither for 50, 70 years, which is what our public education system has done, and then expect that one man in 10 or 12 years is going to correct all those ills,” Allon said.

And yet Allon wants to roll back Bloomberg’s very first education reform: centralizing the Department of Education’s headquarters at Tweed Courthouse, on the same block as City Hall. The centralization has left the DOE detached from the diverse needs of individual schools, according to Allon, who wants to operate the agency across distinct offices in each borough.

“I think there’s way too many people involved in the bureaucracy of our schools and not enough people who are focused on the nuts and bolts of professional developments and helping teachers become better,” he said.

Allon strongly opposes the policy, which the Bloomberg administration has advanced, of placing charter schools in the same buildings as existing district schools. “I think it creates unnecessary tension and unnecessary polarities,” he said. “It creates a sort of upstairs-downstairs sort of feeling.”

Allon knows those tensions well. He helped open Frank McCourt High School, a selective high school that is one of five schools sharing space in the Brandeis Campus on the Upper West Side. That’s the building where charter school operator Eva Moskowitz controversially wants to open one of her schools, Upper West Success, in September.

“I think Eva Moskowitz is a great educator. I just wish there was another way to locate that school,” he said.

Allon’s solution to charter schools’ quest for increasingly scarce school to space is to offer tax breaks to developers, as the city does for affordable housing, to build schools on the bottom floors of new buildings. “I think if we can build newer and better schools, it will take a lot of pressure out of the system where you have overcrowding co-location, classes in the hallways,” he said.

Allon is in part running on the shoulders of the success he’s enjoyed at Manhattan Media, which has grown as other media companies have fallen victim to woeful economic conditions. The company, which now has more than 120 employees, has diversified its business model to include events. One of these is the Blackboard Awards, which annually recognizes the city’s top schools and educators.

Allon says many of his views have been informed by his own experiences. Allon attended private and parochial school until high school, when he enrolled at Stuyvesant High School. He returned to his high school alma mater after graduating from journalism school to teach. “It was by far the hardest job I ever had,” he said of the two years he spend teaching English and journalism.

Allon is critical of high-stakes testing and alternative certification programs that have supplied the city schools with young educators.

“First of all, somebody that goes into education is obviously, in most cases, somebody who’s committed to being a great teacher,” he said. “I think we need to figure out a way to give those people a way to be better teachers and really work with them in the first five years. That’s why I have a little bit of a problem with Teach For America, even though I think it’s a worthy thing. Teaching is a profession, like many professions, that you get better at over time.”

Allon lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and three school-aged children, two of whom attend neighborhood public schools, while the third attends private school.

Without Bloomberg’s billions of dollars, Alon’s greatest challenge in these early stages of campaigning will be catching up in the race to raise money. He will lend himself a portion of the funds to get started, but “I’ve verbally gotten hundreds of thousands of dollars of commitments so far so I am confident that I’m going to get there.”

Winning a slice of the city’s demographically and racially diverse voting blocs, which his competition already have well covered, is another hurdle. Allon understands that he faces an uphill battle to convince people he is for real. Even his own employees called the campaign a “vanity run” and a “long shot at best.”

“My job over the next six months as I get out and speak to potential donors and potential supporters and the media is to convince people that I’m a different, fresh face, that I’m more qualified to lead this city two and a half years from now.”

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.