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.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”