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story.lead_photo.caption Governor Asa Hutchinson is shown in this photo. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

The list of more than 2,000 low-income children waiting for child-care vouchers will be wiped out with a new $26 million federal grant, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Thursday.

The new federal Child Care Development Fund block grant will pay for 3,800 more child-care voucher slots. Because of funding constraints, 2,056 eligible children were waiting for assistance.

But now, the number of children who can be served by programs for infants and toddlers, pre-kindergarten, after-school and summer break was increased by more than 70 percent -- or from more than 5,300 to 9,100 children.

"Early childhood education is a building block for success in life," Hutchinson said during a news conference at the state Capitol. "That has been recognized across the spectrum in studies of how you improve education and opportunities in life."

About 10 percent of the grant is allocated for professional development of the facilities' staff, the implementation of initiatives for infants and toddlers and the improvement of quality child care.

"Arkansas has strong, high-quality early childhood programs, so it is exciting to know that we will be able to provide more hardworking families access to those services," said Tonya Williams, director of the Division of Child Care and Early Childhood Education. The division is part of the state Department of Human Services. "Research shows that the earlier you get children into high-quality learning programs, the better they will do as they progress through school."

The additional funding is part of a two-year budget deal that increased the Child Care Development Block Grant by $5.8 billion. It was approved by Congress and President Donald Trump signed it in February.

"I am grateful that Congress and President Trump saw fit to send more money back to the states," Hutchinson said.

Administered through the Child Care and Early Childhood Education Division, recipients of the vouchers must have at least one child in the home age 12 or younger and at least one parent who works at least 30 hours per week, goes to school full time or is enrolled in a certificate or training program.

The vouchers can only be used at child-care facilities that are licensed or registered by the division.

The voucher system pays for all or part of the child-care costs for eligible families that earn less than 200 percent of the poverty level.

A family of four would qualify for full or partial payment if their income was between $24,539.64 and $52,146.48 a year, according to the state's 2018 Child Care Assistance Sliding Fee Chart.

The copay for those families that do not qualify for full payment is based on the child-care center's Better Beginnings Star level -- the state's quality improvement and rating system for child care -- and the facility's rate per day.

The state began placing families on the waiting list in the fall of 2007 after the program experienced a shortage in funds caused by flat federal funding, increases in reimbursement rates to child-care providers and an increase in income eligibility standards.

Even with foster-care and homeless children having a priority to receive child-care assistance, Our House Executive Director Ben Goodwin said the vouchers have been difficult to obtain, forcing the homeless shelter to provide free child care for those waiting on state funding.

The organization provides child care through its on-site Little Learners facility, not only for its clients but also for five different Little Rock shelters. Our House has about 75 families that are near-homeless or currently homeless and are voucher-eligible, but are waiting to receive the benefit.

Those families will either send their children to Little Learners or other child-care centers in the community, Goodwin said.

"This new funding will be an immediate benefit to all of these families," Goodwin said. "Their parents want to work, but the number one barrier to successful employment for our parents, 95 percent of whom are single mothers, is the cost of child care. This policy will directly create stability and prosperity for our families, and we couldn't be happier about it."

Metro on 05/18/2018

Print Headline: $26M grant to erase state's child-care voucher list

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