New rules that recently went into effect mean more low-income Louisiana families are eligible for child care assistance. The state, though, is not increasing funding, so the number of children served is not expected to increase much initially.

The aid comes via the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP. Largely federally funded, it helps pay the cost of child care for children from birth to 4 years old while parents are at work, school or in job training.

The number of children served by the program had shrunk by more than 70 percent since 2008 — from more than 39,000 then to about 11,000 now — due to a combination of severe state-level budget cuts and increased eligibility requirements.

The Louisiana Department of Education announced the implementation of new rules Thursday that will open the door for more children to be served by the program. They were approved in August by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"These changes not only ensure more working families have access to the assistance they need, it also makes certain that more children are enrolled in programs that will prepare them to begin school,” said State Superintendent of Education John White.

The biggest change reduces from 30 hours to 20 hours the number of hours each week that recipients must work or be in job training. Having to consistently work at least 30 hours a week has proven difficult for many families, state leaders argued. The number of hours for families that have special needs children also has been reduced to just 15 hours

The new rules mean students enrolled in an accredited school or job training full-time are eligible for the aid; they no longer need to spend at least 30 hours in school each week, or some combination of work and school that exceeds 30 hours.

The rule changes come on top of earlier ones that relaxed other eligibility requirements as well as modestly increased the level of aid.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the income threshold for to qualify to participate in the program. A family of four can earn at most $37,944 a year — which is lower than most other states.

Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, a statewide group, applauded the relaxed eligibility rules and said they are part of a series of constructive moves by the state.

“Even though we have very little money, (this) is making it easier to qualify so that we have a better handle on the need,” said Bronfin.

Bronfin said it’s a change from the state's practice of avoiding waiting lists by increasing eligibility requirements.

She said the relaxed eligibility rules likely will result in waiting lists. But it will give state leaders a truer sense of the need, allowing advocates like her to make a better case for increasing child care assistance funding, she said.

That need could prove quite large indeed.

Using U.S. Census data, the state recently calculated that income-based programs such as CCAP, Head Start and Early Head Start serve less than 15 percent of the children who likely could qualify. That leaves about 145,000 children from infants to three-year-olds unserved.

Without help, Bronfin said these families are relying on relatives or going into unregulated daycares.

“Kids are ending up in places we are very concerned about,” Bronfin said.

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