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The state is getting a $33 million competitive grant from the federal government to widen access to early childhood education, state officials announced Monday.

The aid will be parceled out over three years at $11 million per year, according to the state Department of Education.

The money will finance 600 new seats in early care centers for children from birth to age 3 in low-income families.

It will be prioritized for programs that provide infant care, meet teacher certification requirements and reach minimum quality rating scores.

The grant will also help pay for improvements in the quality of early childhood education and boost efforts by communities to meet the needs of their youngest learners.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has made early childhood education one of his key priorities for the 2020 legislative session.

The state has struggled to fund the services for years, including assistance for parents who work or attend school while their children are enrolled in early-learning centers.

That effort is called the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP.

Nearly 14,000 children are enrolled in CCAP today compared to about 40,000 in the past.

More than 2,000 children are on a waiting list to receive state services.

In a statement, state Superintendent of Education John White said Louisiana has transformed its early childhood education since landmark legislation was approved in 2012.

"This new grant award marks an important step toward solving the state's crisis of access, particularly among children from birth to age 3, who are most in need," he said.

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"However, significant barriers remain for thousands of working families in need of quality care and education for their children," White said. 

Advocates say the assistance is especially needed since about half of children entering kindergarten are not ready to learn.

Those children often struggle academically for years, crippling a public school system long rated as one of the most troubled in the nation.

Tony Davis, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Louisiana is one of 20 states that landed the grant.

Libbie Sonnier-Netto, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, praised the announcement, with a caveat. "This exciting news should serve as momentum for early childhood providers, advocates and lawmakers to continue their progress," said Sonnie-Netto, also in a statement.

"While this funding is a positive step, more can and must be done for our children," she said.

State figures show that, among children from low-income families, 7% percent from birth to age 2 get early childhood education and 33% of three-year olds.

A state commission earlier this year said $86 million per year is needed over the next decade to make a significant dent in addressing the issue.

Backers of the request said the money would ensure care for 114,000 of 173,000 children from birth to age 3.

The grant will also allow the state to double the number of network pilots set up to improve community access to services for early learners.

There are 13 pilots now.

The state has landed $40.3 million in similar grants since 2014.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.