Utah prides itself on parenthood.

We are the state that loves children. We're delighted to tell the world we have the highest percent of children (37.5 percent compared to the national average of 26.4 percent.But as much as we know about children, there's still alot to be learned about child care - and the gaps that exist between what's needed and what's available.

I got a start on my education last week at the Social Services Interim Committee. Half a dozen child-care experts - from the advocates to the educators to the providers and consumers - shared information on what is becoming a critical issue in Utah.

I learned that:

In the past 37 years, Utah women's participation in the labor force has increased from 25 to 59 percent - higher than the national average of 54 percent.

Two-thirds of working women who have preschool children are either the sole wage earner or are supplementing a family income of $15,000 or less.

According to projections, by 1990 (and it's not very far away), 80 percent of the preschool-age children's mothers and 90 percent of school-age children's mothers will be in the work force.

And they'll be there out of economic necessity - the same as they do now. Currently, 25 percent of these working mothers are married to men who earn less than $10,000, and 50 percent have husbands who make less than $20,000 a year.

Utah's situation is more complicated than most. We have more children, but we also have fewer working adults to support them.

In a nationwide study, Utah ranked No. 50. More than that, our average per capita income is lower than the national average. In 1987, Utah per capita income was $11,246. Overall in the U.S., the number was $15,340.

And the bottom line: There are 506,600 children younger than age of 13 in this state. About half of them need child care of some kind because their parents work.

There are 240 licensed child care centers caring for 17,000 children and 1,500 licensed family day care homes caring for 12,000 children. Using simple math, that leaves 224,300 children who need child care unaccounted for.

A study by Utah Children, a group that advocates for children, outlined three key issues: affordability, quality, and availability.

Quality, it said, is determined by reasonable group size, caregiver-to-child ratio, and the caregiver's education and training, relevant to young children.

You can legislate the caregiver-child ratio, I suppose. But it's not realistic to demand caregivers take a lot of extra training to qualify to earn the amount of money we pay them.

According to child care providers who spoke at the meeting, someone who has spent a great deal of time as a day care provider can easily make minimum wage an hour - or even less.

To expect this person to take X number of hours of special courses so that he or she can earn such a paltry figure is, in a word, ridiculous.

I heard a rumor about Utah that seems to be going around. One of my friends told me we're getting a reputation as the state that loves children - but only if we don't have to put a lot of money into them.

That's not a reputation I want.

With perpetual and extraordinary budget cuts looming on the horizon, it's not unreasonable to suspect that the number of day care slots the state subsidizes to provide child care so that low-income parents can become self-sufficient will be reduced. That seems to be the trend.

But we don't need less slots - we need at least 550 more subsidized day care slots. Both the state and private-placement consumers need to find ways to pay enough money to attract high-quality child care providers.

For children under age 2, the state pays $7.95 a day. For those older, the rate is $6.65. Because of the low payment, child care providers must charge public placements more or go under.

In a place that proudly proclaims its love for children, it doesn't make much sense to skimp on child care.