PRESIDENT CLINTON SAYS no parent should ever have to choose between their job and their children. So subsidizing institutional day care, in the form of a $21 billion program, is a centerpiece of his agenda and search for a legacy in his last years in office.

But a recent article in The New York Times should make any honest person aghast at the idea.Tamar Lewin, a reporter for the Times, focused on three child-care centers in Houston. Each was clean and comfortable, orderly and pleasant. The caretakers were, she says, unfailingly warm, loving and responsive to signs of distress.

But it's clear each center was a danger zone for children.

That's because the children and babies were being "well cared for" by people who had no relationship to them other than they were being paid to care for them.

Lewin noted that "none of the care providers kept up anything like the stream of language that researchers have found a child needs." It seems children were well-managed but rarely interacted with. But, says Lewin, "If a child was not having a problem, not in need of feeding or diapering or nose-wiping, no one was likely to engage that child."

In one care center, 10-week-olds spent most of the day in their cribs and were taken out only when they cried or needed diapering or feeding. No one stopped to talk to them.

Sadly, this is probably about as good as it gets in many day-care centers. Think about it. Each center knew a reporter from the New York Times would be observing them. Can you imagine how they prepared and trained in anticipation and had their best staff putting their most attentive feet forward? What goes on when a reporter is not in the room?

Author Maggie Gallagher has researched and written a great deal on institutional day care. She notes there is a large body of evidence linking early, extensive day care with psychological, social and behavioral problems.

And a 1994 study from the University of Calgary involving over 22,000 children concludes: "Full-time care for infants and young children puts a substantial proportion of the population at risk for psychological maladaption."

Other studies find that children in extensive day care are more aggressive with peers and less compliant with the requests of adults. In one study involving 8-year-olds, a history of extensive day care was a better predictor of problems than family characteristics such as socioeconomic status!

Gallagher cites evidence from an ongoing study by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development that mother-child attachments suffer more the more time a child spends in day care. By age 3, it's typical that the mother becomes less sensitive to the child, and the child shows less affection for her, than mothers and children not involved in extensive day care.

It was another part of this study that last year was touted as finding that day care is fine for kids. What it actually said is that children in "high-quality" care can do fine by many measures. But, such care is found in less than 10 percent of day-care centers.

Well, day-care advocates answer, "more regulation" and more money is what's needed. Thus the president's initiative to pour billions into institutional child care. But no amount of money or training or regulating can buy the consistent love and commitment of a mother or other close relative.

This isn't news to America's parents. Less than 10 percent of them put their kids in institutional daycare. Most have relatives taking care of their children when ongoing care is needed. In fact, one recent survey asked "is finding good day care a problem for your family?" Only 13 percent of parents reported that it was "a major prob-lem." And 69 percent indicated it was "not a problem at all."

It's true that some parents can't afford to choose time with their children over their time at their job. Others parents can, yet for whatever reason don't. But for just about all parents, institutional day care is the last choice they would make.

It's sadly typical that the Clintons want billions of dollars to go to a program few parents want, instead of making it possible for more parents to choose the care they do want for their kids.