It's nap time at Little Rascals Daycare in downtown Salt Lake City. As the children sprawl on their mats, the smell of baking cookies fills the big old home.

About a mile north, at the We Care center, children nap in a brand new building. They, too, lie on little mats, clutching their blankets, twitching and wriggling until they drop into the deep sleep of childhood.Both centers supply mats and blankets, good food, shelves full of toys and teachers who care about children.

But there the similarities end.

"Visit a day-care center that takes mostly state-sponsored children," suggests Diane Yancey, director of the state Office of Child Care. "Then visit a private center. Take a look at the difference."

At 1 p.m. in the main room at Little Rascals a television is running. Five preschoolers have come in to watch cartoons, while several younger children doze on mats in the adjoining room. A baby in a playpen fusses, refuses sleep, tosses toys out on the carpet. A toddler sobs.

A teacher in a pink sweatshirt is in charge of getting the group settled down for a rest, if not a nap. She divides her time between the baby, the toddler and the older children.

Meanwhile, at We Care, a radio is playing softly in the 3-year-old's classroom. While there may be some fussy babies in the infant rooms, here at least, all is peace.

Eighteen children lie on mats. Three teachers move silently between them, rubbing backs. In a few minutes every child is asleep. The teachers begin their daily ritual of cleaning and disinfecting the toys and furniture.AT LITTLE RASCALS about 80 percent of the children are state-sponsored, says the center's director, Lisa Schofield. Their parents go to school or a job, trying to work their way off welfare.

While the parents are away, the state pays Schofield $8.60 a day (more for infants) to care for each child.

Parents who pay for their own day care spend an average of $10 or $11 a day in Utah. But Schofield doesn't feel right about charging her private customers more than $9 a day - in effect asking them to subsidize the state-sponsored children. Many of her private customers only make minimum wage, she explains. "You have to keep the costs down."

And money is always tight at Little Rascals.

By contrast, parents who use We Care are all employees of Intermountain Health Care. They pay $5 or $6 more a day than Schofield's customers do. In addition, IHC subsidizes the center, according its director, Theresa Creel.

What difference does money make? Three differences can be seen at a glance:

First, children of the IHC employees play in a specially designed child-care center. It has large windows, bright paint and child-sized sinks and toilets in each classroom.

Second, their toys are state-of-the-art. New and clean. Plentiful.

Third, and this is, according to the experts, a more important difference: The ratio of children to adults is lower at We Care.

"The state ratios are much too high," says Creel. The state of Utah allows licensed providers to have a ratio of one teacher to 15 3-year-olds, she says. "We would never go higher than one to seven."

The only way for Schofield to make money is to care for the maximum or near the maximum number of children she is licensed for. She can't afford to hire extra teachers.

Creel can.

The extra help was evident at nap time. At We Care, teachers had an easy time getting the children settled down.

There are other differences between the two centers, differences that aren't as easily seen, perhaps.

At We Care, Creel explains, teachers earn more than minimum wage. All have some college education, and IHC will pay 70 percent of their tuition if they want more. They have health benefits and paid vacations - even paid planning time. And a library of child-care books and curriculum plans. And an active parent teacher association.

Education leads to professionalism leads to teacher retention leads to better care for children, says Diane Yancey. Little Rascals teachers take the courses the state gives and are trained in CPR. There is no money to pay for them to take college courses.

"I could earn more being a teller at a bank," says Schofield. She keeps her business because she likes being with her own children all day.

Most day-care owners work hard just to break even, Schofield says. They pay their teachers minimum wage: $4.25 an hour. If enrollment drops, they give the teachers unpaid vacations.

When Lisa Schofield talks about her job, she uses the word stress. Creel doesn't.

Both Schofield and Creel have dreams, ideas for making things better at their centers.

Creel says, "It's great to have nice facilities, but most important is a quality staff." She plans to hold a fund-raiser, with parent help, to raise money to take all the teachers to a national day-care convention in Denver this summer.

Lisa Schofield has a wish list, too. What would she do if she suddenly got $10 or $11 a day for each child? "Give the teachers a raise, first thing," says Schofield. Then she'd redo the playground. Buy a new crib. If she had anything left she'd hire more teachers.

Schofield may get to realize some of her dreams. According to Duane Dowden, daycare licensing specialist for the state, Utah will get $7.1 million in federal funds over the next three years, with 75 percent of that money earmarked to raise the amount the state pays for care for low-income children.

But Schofield has other wishes, too. "I wish, when I call to report child abuse, that they wouldn't send uniformed police to take the children away in police cars. I wish they'd use plain clothes."

And she wishes there was some sort of network so that when she reports an abusive parent and the parent quickly switches day-care centers, Schofield could know where the child went and tell the new provider what to watch for.

Schofield can't help thinking about what happens to the children after they leave Little Rascals and go home. "At least half our kids are better off here," she says. Safer, cleaner, warmer or better fed.

Meanwhile, at We Care, Creel has never worked with children who were so well off. Most of them come from intact families, stable families, she says. "So they don't have much added stress in their lives."

In that respect it is difficult to do what Yancey suggests. It is difficult to compare day-care centers. If children cry more at $8-a-day centers than they do at $16-a-day centers, it may be because life has given them more to cry about.

In fact, Dowden and Yancey agree, this is one way to sum up child care in the United States today: "We spend the least on the children who are most at risk."

What are the main issues in child care in Utah?

1. Quality.

From Utah Issues to Utah Children to The Children Service Society, local advocates see quality as the issue of the '90s.

Quality means money, says Duane Dowden, a day-care licensing specialist for the state:

- Money for salaries. "People who are paid better make child care a career," says Dowden.

- Money for training. "Providers who are educated know what developmental activities are right for each age," says Diane Yancey, director of the state Office of Child Care.

- Money for children at risk. "Because the state's reimbursement rates are so low, many providers will not accept children (of low-income parents) for care," says the Utah Children news bulletin.

2. Shortage of infant care.

"I have 100 infants on the waiting list," says Theresa Creel, director of We Care child-care center.

"Recruitment is the key," says Yancey. The quickest way to fix the shortage is to get women who are at home with an infant of their own involved in caring for one or two more, Yancey says. "A home environment is best for infants, anyway. Absolutely."

3. Care for handicapped children.

4. Sick care.

5. Latch-key care.

In other states churches have taken the lead in providing after-school programs for elementary-age children, according to Dowden.

In Utah, PTAs seem to be trying to solve the problem. New legislation gives public schools the right to lease the property to care providers. "Ogden schools have the most innovative programs I've heard of," says Yancey.