Louisiana's most pressing child care challenge is trimming the waiting list of working families seeking affordable care for more than 5,000 children, the official who oversees the program said Tuesday.

"To me it is a no-brainer," said Jenna Conway, assistant superintendent for early childhood in the state Department of Education.

"We have all these working families trying to better the lives of their kids and we cannot find the way to make the investment," said Conway, who is leaving her post June 1.

The aid, called the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP, has been decimated by state budget cuts since 2008.

The program helps pay for the cost of child care for children from birth to age 4 while moms and dads are at work, school or in job training.

However, enrollment has sunk from about 39,000 children in 2008 to 15,154 today amid recurring state budget problems.

A total of 5,280 children are on the CCAP waiting list, according to the state Department of Education.

Conway said it is a story that has not been told enough – families "doing everything society has told them to do.'

"And child care is not affordable for them," she said. "For me we have to solve, Louisiana has to solve, that problem."

Others in the child care industry echoed Conway's concerns.

Alan Young, legislative chairman for the Childcare Association of Louisiana, emphasized that the waiting list applies to families who have qualified for the program.

"What we are talking about is 5,000 at-risk children who are not receiving early childhood education," said Young, who operates a child care center in Shreveport.

"Receiving a high quality early education is how we make sure every child is ready to enter kindergarten ready to learn," he said.

Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said the waiting list affects two generations – working parents and their children.

"By not having reliable child care, our research shows they are late for work, getting fired, causing turnover and high costs to our employers and the economy," Bronfin said of the parents.

Child care costs about $5,700 per year and is going up.

Without the Child Care Assistance Program, she said, children often end up in low-quality, unreliable child care settings, and often join the 50 percent of children in Louisiana not prepared for kindergarten.

Conway, who has been at the department since 2012, is leaving her job to do similar work for the state of Virginia, her home state.

Virginia is trying to better prepare youngsters for kindergarten, and may model some of its efforts after a similar push Conway has overseen here in the the past six years.

Louisiana has launched a quality rating system that allows early childhood programs to be rated using one system statewide.

"That is important because sometimes it is hard for parents to know how to choose a program," Conway said.

The state has also taken steps to simplify enrollment and improve teacher quality by requiring teachers to meet new certification requirements by 2019.

Last week the Legislature gave final approval to legislation – House Bill 676 – aimed at improving access to early childhood education and care.

That measure, which Gov. John Bel Edwards is expected to sign, would feature local pilot projects that could be duplicated statewide.

Local organizations could qualify for financial assistance by crafting ways to increase the number of slots for children or improving their quality.

The bill would also set up a commission to develop a blueprint on how Louisiana can offer affordable child care from birth to age 4.

"I think that commission will come together and lay out a plan and set a target for investment, real specifics on the dollars, to prepare all kids for kindergarten," Conway said.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.