With little fanfare, state aid for Louisiana's youngest children was sliced by state policymakers amid persistent budget problems.

"Our current administration and Legislature did not prioritize early education," Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children in New Orleans, said Wednesday.

The targets include the state's largest prekindergarten program, LA4, which serves more than 16,000 youngsters, and the Nonpublic School Early Childhood Development Program, which covers about 1,600 children.

Both serve 4-year-olds and both are aimed at preparing students for kindergarten in a state where large numbers of children start school ill-prepared.

State aid was trimmed by 2 percent for LA4, to $74 million, and 3 percent for NSECD, to $6.4 million, according to the institute.

In addition, no money was added to a program that helps finance child care for low-income families.

That effort, called the Child Care Assistance Program, suffered a 68 percent drop in enrollment before a slight comeback in recent months after state eligibility rules were loosened.

"That was a huge disappointment," Bronfin said of the freeze.

Bronfin's group is one of the most visible advocacy organizations for early childhood education at the State Capitol, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and elsewhere.

The reductions stem from the 2017 regular and just completed special sessions.

A wide range of state services face reductions or freezes in state aid for the financial year that begins Saturday.

More financial challenges are looming, especially how to guard key state services next year when part of the state sales tax and other measures expire.

Last year, Bronfin and other child care advocates were celebrating the fact that pre-K classes escaped reductions after three legislative sessions dominated by budget problems.

At one point, programs faced reductions of up to $23 million affecting more than 5,000 children.

Not all the latest news is grim.

The state is in line for two more years of pre-K assistance through a federal grant that will ease the impact of the state cuts.

That federal money will pave the way for 1,400 slots for 4-year-olds for the 2017-18 school year, up from 1,000 for the previous year.

The grant also will help finance slots for the 2018-19 school year before the aid ends.

LA4 began as a pilot project in 2002 to help prepare at-risk students for kindergarten.

Without such training, backers say, students often fall behind their peers and never catch up.

Exactly what the state pre-K reductions will mean is unclear.

Officials of the state Department of Education could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The Child Care Assistance Program helps pay for child care for children from birth to 4 years old while parents are at work, school or in job training.

Enrollment plunged from 39,000 in 2008 to 13,000 last year.

That has grown to 18,000 after the state made it easier to qualify.

Recipients have to work or be in job training for an average of 20 hours per week, down from 30 hours previously.

Officials of the state Department of Education announced on June 19 that, after Saturday, applicants will be placed on a waiting list for the services.

Bronfin said the waiting list is a positive step because it will show policymakers the demand for the services.

In the past, she said, the state employed tough eligibility rules and opted not to keep a waiting list.

"It was a false reality," she said. 

Families get an average of $4,050 per year through CCAP and pay the difference for tuition at child care centers.

The average cost of child care in Louisiana is $5,750 for even modest services.

Bronfin also praised the Legislature's decision to expand school readiness tax credits at a time when a wide range of credits are under heavy scrutiny to ease state budget problems.

The credits offer child care centers incentives to meet quality ratings, aid for teachers and administrators who earn credentials and assistance for low-income families to use centers that meet certain standards.

The funding will rise by 30 percent, to $21 million per year.

"The challenge with child care is we need it all," Bronfin said. "We have to attack the problem from different directions. It is so big."

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.