Atlanta mayor seeks $20 million investment in early childhood learning

Superintendent Lisa Herring hugs Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens after she introduces him at the swearing-in ceremony for the new Atlanta Board of Education in January. (Steve Schaefer / AJC file photo)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Superintendent Lisa Herring hugs Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens after she introduces him at the swearing-in ceremony for the new Atlanta Board of Education in January. (Steve Schaefer / AJC file photo)

Education advocates are cheering a city-backed plan to raise $20 million in public and private dollars for early learning programs, calling it a transformative investment in Atlanta’s families.

It’s also one more sign of Mayor Andre Dickens’ efforts to repair a sometimes rocky relationship between City Hall and Atlanta Public Schools, whose leaders have urged more support for the city’s youngest children.

”It is absolutely a historic moment in time. This is really an acknowledgment of the fact that families in the city of Atlanta with young kids … are finally being seen by policymakers,” said Mindy Binderman, executive director of GEEARS: Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students.

On Friday, GEEARS announced a $4.5 million commitment from the Joseph B. Whitehead Foundation and United Way of Greater Atlanta to help fund the initiative that Dickens unveiled in April.

The city will use federal pandemic relief dollars to cover its $5 million share, and the mayor is seeking more private funding to reach the $20 million goal.

“If you care about crime, economic development … you have to care about your city’s kids,” said Courtney English, the mayor’s senior policy adviser and a former school board chairman. “That requires the city and APS working hand in hand.”

In a statement, APS said it’s thrilled by the city’s “tremendous commitment” and said the district will provide details of its own funding plan by early fall. The city has called on APS to contribute $5 million.

Under previous administrations, the city and APS clashed over control of deeds to school properties and the use of school property taxes to pay for redevelopment projects.

Dickens has pledged to partner with the 50,000-student district. He tapped Superintendent Lisa Herring to serve as an honorary co-chair of his transition team. In another goodwill gesture, the mayor spoke at the school board’s January swearing-in ceremony, describing the city as an ally.

Dickens’ plan for early education is intended to better prepare children for school. City officials say access to quality child care and educational offerings for children 3 and younger will boost literacy and allow for greater social mobility.

But thousands of Atlanta parents can’t access those programs, English said. In Georgia, the average cost of infant care is $711 a month, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened the problem. Providers struggled with staffing shortages, and centers closed due to the virus.

In a 2021 GEEARS survey of 400 Georgia parents of young children, a third of respondents said that they or someone in their family had to quit or not take a job or greatly change their work in the past year because of child care challenges. That’s up from 26% in 2018.

The early childhood funds will provide grants of up to $75,000 to licensed Atlanta early childhood education providers. The money can be used to upgrade facilities, train teachers and pay for business coaching.

A scholarship program, to launch around September, will help low-income families and front-line workers pay for early childhood programs. The funds also will be used for incentives to help retain child care workers.

Michele Hill, owner of KIDazzle Child Care, has had a hard time finding experienced workers to staff her centers, including three in Atlanta. She has children on a waiting list.

Hill recently received a $25,000 grant from Promise All Atlanta Children Thrive, a group of public and private entities convened by GEEARS to advocate for early education. The money will help her pay for a long-overdue $71,000 renovation of one center.

PAACT, pulling from that grant experience, will coordinate the city-backed scholarship and grant programs. Hill hopes that more funding and the city’s focus will spotlight how much her industry matters to the economy.

“We feel kind of taken for granted, and then along comes a pandemic and people can’t go to work,” she said.

Benefits of early childhood programs

According to the nonprofit organization Start Early, children who participate in quality early learning are:

  • 25% more likely to graduate from high school.
  • Four times more likely to complete a bachelor’s degree or higher.
  • Poised to earn up to 25% more as an adult.