The Amazon ‘HQ2’ Site-Selection Process and the Quality of K-12 Education Factor!

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Let the classic corporate investment, societal benefits versus injury debate begin! The Amazon Corporation proposes to divide its new second headquarters (“HQ2”) between two cities, New York City and Crystal City, VA. And according to a report in Our Time Press, the “every area & product of commerce” you can think of company promises to create 25,000 to 40,000 new jobs and invest more than $3.6 billion over 15 years, a percentage of that investment going into “local education.”

One could argue about the wide (and in some cases amazing) spectrum of site-selection “incentives” offered by hundreds of cities around the US and the effects of such a massive investment; e.g., 25,000 new residents with an average annual salary of $150,000 on the local real estate and economy. But I will leave that analysis to those who are better equipped to do corporate investment, socioeconomic impact studies. I am, however, very interested in the role education played in the selection process and what are the possible educational benefits of these projects on and to the local public school system.

First, a full confession. I have professional friends in many of the “competing” cities, but I did not have the heart to tell some of them that their city’s lack of a serious interest in developing a viable-vibrant and dynamic K-12 educational system was/is hurting them with and beyond the Amazon HQ2 site-selection scenario.

I am somewhat familiar with both places (Crystal City, VA and NYC) selected, and from a business perspective, I could see how the quality of K-12 education factor resulted in those cities being selected.   A company like Amazon seeking to identify a corporate headquarters site would be primarily concerned with two important quality of K-12 education life factors:

(1) Prospective employees who are, or plan to be parents could be extremely interested in their children’s education options; and in fact, for many “job-seeking” employees, the quality of the local public schools question is a key deciding factor for accepting a particular job venue. Especially in places like NYC and northern Virginia, where very expensive private school tuition, combined with the general high cost of living expenses could put considerable financial pressure on even a “good” salary. Further, one of the most important concepts in any family’s quality of life improvement concerns is the idea that it really does not matter how well you are employed or compensated on a job as a parent. If you can’t provide your children with a good and enriched educational experience, the “new job,” no matter how attractive, could be seen as a net generational improvement loss.

(2) Any company that is heavily dependent on technology, information and knowledge-based products and production must be able to locally replenish their highly-skilled and educated workforce. Constantly relying on the “importation” (in or outside of the US) of a skilled and well-educated workforce creates a never-ending human resources (HR) “headache.” This problem will only intensify for US-based companies as “developing countries” grow the capacity of their local commercial infrastructure to the point where they can absorb their own “homegrown,” highly skilled citizens. If you want to understand this problem in a noncommercial context, just ask a Title 1 (poor) urban or rural school principal how hard it is to replace and/or recruit certified teachers in certain subject areas like science, mathematics and foreign language.

While some folks are focused on the “huge” tax breaks Amazon will receive, the company will get a wonderful long-term “education-benefit-break” by the matching of their 2-HQ2’s with a “striving to be good” K-12 public education system. A school system that at least has the capacity and potential of producing a substantial number of students ready for the apprenticeship-technically skilled workforce, and students who are well-prepared to go to college. This is an educational outcomes “profile” that represents an HR asset/advantage. And when you combine that solid K-12 educational system with a rich and diverse offering of post-high school 2-year, undergraduate and graduate, public and private college/university programs, Amazon could conceivably be adequately staffed far into the future.

However, the long-term “trending-demographics” challenge and question for these two urban public education systems (and Amazon) is how can they improve the educational outcomes for their poor, Black and Latino students? Amazon or any US employment agency, private or governmental, can’t hope to adequately fill its future employment needs if local school districts are not maximizing their potential to produce a larger number of students who are truly able to fully realize their intellectual gifts and talents. Entitled and effectively educated US white males (a shrinking population) won’t be able, going forward, to meet and carry the growing burden of America’s well-educated, technically skilled and STEM-knowledgeable workforce needs. It’s that moment when the equality of educational quality issue becomes not just a moral objective, but a strategic business objective.

Which is why I am interested in knowing more about the public education “incentives” that Amazon is offering. If the “educational programs” and the promised STEM school are structured to only serve those students who are already being well-served by these local public school systems, then the lost opportunity here is far worse than any inconsequential “heliport” concern. However, a thoughtful and well-planned educational-workforce-pipeline K-12 school plan could equip a large, diverse cohort of local children with the skills and knowledge to competently and competitively engage the future at Amazon or anywhere they choose to be. This, then, would indeed be a value added to that city.

An additional hopeful expectation is that strategically-smart high school principals in both cities will be able to create “dynamic partnerships,” internship-work/study programs linked to the corporate giant. Local universities and colleges could seek to create similar pipeline projects along with designing college courses and programs that align with Amazon’s employment needs. The Washington Post has reported that Virginia Tech University is already developing a plan to build a $1 billion graduate school in walking distance of Amazon’s Crystal City headquarters! These possible local educational institutions/Amazon partnerships, if done right, could lead to tremendous educational and employment opportunities for generations of children in those two cities.

My advice to cities, whether choosing or not to compete for an Amazon, is to think economic-globally by investing locally in K-12 public education. A critical mass of well-educationally-prepared young people will, of course, attract any knowledge-information-technology-based corporation. But a second by-product is the “growing” of a larger number of highly skilled and well-educated adults who are equipped with high levels of inventive-innovative thinking and the intellectual capacity and knowledge to create their own local entrepreneurial “start-up” businesses.

The challenge (specifically my challenge) has always been in trying to convince localities that investing in their K-12 public educational systems, and particularly investing in children of color, is the best approach to a long-term path to a locally vibrant and self-renewable rendition of good economic development.

A locality’s decision to educate every child to reach their full potential is the kind of economic empowerment “front-end” investment that removes the dependence on poverty-related crime to feed a community-wide deleterious, spiritually and family-destructive, criminal justice/social-fixing services system. A serious K-12 investment in education also eliminates the problem of cities being totally dependent on outside corporate investment to grow their quality of lifestyle, even as a good K-12 educational system for all students will encourage corporate investment. But this type of commitment requires an enlightened and politically courageous leadership perspective.

If city and state elected officials can design “game-changing” economic development projects by coming up with bold, creative and inventive incentives for inviting corporate investment, then why can’t we introduce an atmosphere of that same creativity, inventiveness and boldness with our public school systems? Seeing public education as an important instrument of “development.” Presently, we condemn too many public schoolchildren to a second-class educational experience; and, unfortunately, this poor and inadequate education does not prepare these young people to work at Amazon or anywhere else.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership.” [http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/]

Tags: Amazon, HQ2, Headquarters, New York City-Crystal City, VA, Tax breaks, Incentives, Economic development, Public school investment, site selection.