Amazon’s HQ2: A Step in the Wrong Direction for NYC Schools

Amazon’s new headquarters in Long Island City will further segregate an already divided student population.

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When Amazon announced its search for a prime location for its second headquarters back in 2017, many cities across the country put their best feet forward in grand attempts to entice the e-commerce entity. Amazon promised 50,000 jobs to the city it chose and an average annual salary of $150,000 for the workers it hired. After a long wait of many months, Amazon finally announced in November 2018 that “HQ2” would be split between Arlington, Virginia, and Long Island City in Queens, New York City. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to give Amazon huge tax breaks and a $5 billion investment in the hopes that the company’s headquarters would fulfill its promises of economic revitalization in the area.

But with the arrival of new, affluent residents in Long Island City—which has undergone post-industrial development at an unprecedented pace over the past decade—will come a surge in housing prices, potentially displacing many low-income families who call the area home. This economic phenomenon, popularly known as “gentrification,” is not a new concept in NYC (think Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridge Park). The gentrification of the neighborhood may well induce many positive changes: local businesses will see more success, and community infrastructure will improve. However, countless studies of gentrification have shown that its transformational influence does not extend to the public school system.

According to The New York Times, less than 25 percent of the children in gentrifying neighborhoods that have historically been home to people of color (such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem) attend their zoned school. “Gentrifier parents” tend to avoid sending their children to poorly rated zoned schools, instead choosing schools with higher-income student populations and comparatively higher test scores. These affluent and exclusive schools are more often than not populated by a majority of white students. This means that the seats in the undesirable zoned schools are filled by lower-income students who don’t have the advantage of being able to afford tuitions to go to independent or private schools. Many come from elementary schools that do not prepare them for selective state tests that determine acceptance into so-called “magnet” schools. As a result, zoned public schools in gentrifying neighborhoods become less diverse in terms of race, socioeconomic background, and academic performance.

All of this mean problems for Long Island City’s overpopulated and underperforming public schools. The Gotham Gazette, a local newspaper, reports that the area’s sole zoned public school is already at 135 percent capacity. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz has announced a plan to add 18,000 more seats to the area’s school system, but such a solution is only temporary and fails to account for the many new students who will arrive once Amazon’s employees move into the neighborhood.

While the lack of diversity in New York City schools is commonly attributed to widespread racial segregation in neighborhoods across all boroughs, the trends in the educational choices and preferences of parents show that even as middle and upper class masses migrate into low-income areas and the areas become more ethnically integrated, the exact opposite occurs within zoned public schools. This shifts the blame for lack of school integration from the scapegoat of racially divided neighborhoods onto the more likely culprits: parents and school choice.

However, eliminating school choice entirely would likely not make a difference. Gentrifier parents would be less likely to move into low-income neighborhoods with schools that are failing in terms of student performance if they did not have the choice to send their children to a better academic environment. Schools would remain largely racially homogenous. Thus, it seems that a solution lies in the ability of New York City parents to cooperate with city officials in their pursuit of a desegregated school system. The fact that New York City has such an ethnically diverse yet heavily segregated student population isn’t Amazon’s fault. It is very much inherent within the public school system and New York City as a whole. But it will be made that much more difficult for New York City students to be equitable in education if Amazon arrives before city officials. NYC parents have to work together to implement changes to the school system and its approach to integration.