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Louisiana's waiting list for child care while parents work or attend school is about to drop by nearly 80 percent after a long-awaited injection of federal dollars, officials said Tuesday.

The aid, called the Child Care Assistance Program, or CCAP, has been battered by reductions for the past decade, sparking a waiting list of about 5,200 children.

However, about 4,000 of those youngsters will soon join the program because the federal money will pay for new slots for children from birth to age 4.

"It's a life changer for those who are going to come off the wait list," said Lisa Brochard, executive director of the Office of Early Childhood Operations.

Melanie Bronfin, executive director of the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, said it is the first time in nine years that the federal allocation has gone up.

"We know that parents need this support," Bronfin said.

"Having every child off that waiting list means a child in higher quality care, and a parent with reliable, quality care able to get to work," she said. "And that is a blessing."

About 15,000 children are enrolled in the program today, down from about 39,000 in 2008.

Backers say the aid offers an invaluable service to families, and helps better prepare children for kindergarten in a state where roughly half arrive at school poorly prepared.

Brochard said the aid helps struggling moms and dads who are working, taking care of their children and wanting to put them in a safe setting.

"They are just so much further advanced that those not in that situation," Brochard said of the children getting the quality child care.

The aid also applies to parents who are in job training.

Shawnda Jefferson, a single mother of two, said Tuesday her children Kwadir, 4 and Rakwon, 2, were in CCAP for about three years.

The monthly aid, which totaled about $450, along with another program helped Jefferson pay for child care that totaled around $1,200 at the time.

"It was extremely helpful," said Jefferson, a state auditor who lives in New Orleans and who just earned a master's degree.

"My children were both going to school that they had been to since birth," she said. "Every teacher knew them. They were very comfortable."

Jefferson said she was forced out of the program in September because she was told she earned too much, and will soon be paying $600 per month for child care.

"I went to school so I would not have to be in this predicament," she said.

How much families in the program receive is based on income levels.

Even with the injection of federal dollars major challenges remain, Bronfin said.

She said families of up to 40,000 children need the aid, and it is unclear whether the latest federal allocation will be renewed after one year.

The families of the 5,200 children on the waiting list now are all qualified for the aid.

When that list is trimmed a new wave of applications is expected.

"The word is out a little bit that this money is coming down the line," Brochard said.

Most of those waiting for slots have been on the list for about one year.

They have not yet been notified.

The state is getting just under $40 million from the federal government.

However, rules limit how the dollars can be spent.

Bronfin said the larger question is what kind of state dollars the program can expect and when.

"We are still a state not investing in it," she said of the child care program.

The Legislature starts its seventh special session on budget problems in the past two years on Monday, this one on a $648 million shortfall for state services starting July 1.


Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.