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The state of Utah regulates commercial child care through a licensing process that sets minimum standards. Now officials are debating whether those standards - and perhaps even licensing itself - should be dropped.

While the movement to reduce government's regulatory control of some aspects of business and private lives is both popular and needed, withdrawing minimum standards from child care is ill-conceived and endangers a vulnerable population.The Office of Licensing, located in the Department of Human Services, has regulations applying to health and safety (such as nutrition and sanitation rules), curriculum (not what to teach but guidelines for age-appropriate activities), materials and equipment to match the needs of the number of children enrolled and personnel requirements (like training and staff-to-child ratios).

The regulations do not dictate specifics but set minimum requirements as a way of protecting both children and their parents. They do require direct supervision and ban any type of child abuse.

The regulations apply to all providers who care for more than three children at a time for more than four hours a day.

Ideally, a parent should be at home with children. But the reality is that most parents work. Utah's percentage of families where both parents work exceeds the national percentage. And in Utah, 57 percent of all children under age 13 require some type of child care. More than 80 percent of all children in that age group live in two-parent families with both parents in the work force.

While the licensing of a facility doesn't guarantee that children will be safe, it provides at least some assurances to parents who must leave their children in someone else's care.

During the past two legislative sessions, some lawmakers have indicated that who's caring for children isn't very important. For example, an early version of welfare reform would have forced welfare recipients who couldn't find any other work to provide day care for other welfare recipients' children. What does this say about the value Utah places on poor children?

Too many people seem to view day-in and day-out child care as nothing more than baby-sitting.

That's an enormous - and costly - mistake.

Repeated studies have shown that how much and how well a child learns is set very early in life. By the time a child is in school, much of that child's development and future potential has been set.

It's also an economic development issue. When companies look at an area for potential development, availability of high-caliber child care for employees is a plus.

When children, at an early age, are nurtured and safe and stimulated to learn and grow, they become more productive and happy adults. That's definitely economic development.

Utah's leaders and lawmakers need to face a simple fact: If we're going to have quality children, we have to have quality child care. And that means setting some standards and living by them.