In seeking better access to child care for more low-income families, we cannot trade off their children's safety. But that is exactly what Rep. Nancy Johnson's Child Care Act of 1987 -- endorsed by the Post in an editorial {June 20} -- would do.

The bill starts off in the right direction by providing desperately needed federal funds to help low-income families pay for child care. But it takes a wrong turn when it allows providers of day care in their homes to participate in this program for as many as three years without meeting any of the state standards that protect children's health and safety. The Post goes along with this approach, recommending that meeting minimum safety requirements be separated from the issue of providing new federal funds for child care.

But the issue of regulation is too urgent to be left for another day. It needs to be addressed now, while the subject is on the table. When child care is left unregulated, tragedy can result. Last December, in Brooklyn, a fire broke out in an unlicensed family day-care home. The family day-care provider was looking after too many infants and toddlers -- more than state standards would have permitted -- to get all the children to safety. Two children, ages 4 and 2, were killed.

We know that standards make a difference to children's safety. A recent study of child abuse and neglect in North Carolina day-care programs found that complaints against unregistered family day-care providers were three times as likely to be severe as those in registered homes. Furthermore, child-care centers subject to lower standards and less monitoring were five times as likely to be the subject of serious complaints as programs that met higher standards and received more frequent monitoring. Setting and ensuring compliance with basic standards is a widely accepted public responsibility for many public services and health-related jobs: restaurants, doctors, auto mechanics, and bus drivers. Small children deserve no less.

We also know that ensuring quality child care contributes to a more productive work force. Parents lose valuable time on the job when they are worried about their children's care arrangements. A Fortune magazine study of 400 working mothers and fathers with children under 12 found that dissatisfaction with child care was the most reliable indicator of absenteeism and unproductive work time.

Second, decent child care is critical to the healthy development of a growing proportion of our future work force. A number of business and government leaders agree that high-quality early childhood development programs play a key role in getting children off to a good start. Such programs are equally crucial for low-income children: improving their ability to gain basic academic skills, addressing their health and nutritional needs, and helping to ensure that they begin school on a more equal footing with their more advantaged peers.

As the portion of the American population that is young shrinks, we will need every one of our youths to have developed the basic skills to be productive and to help our nation remain competitive. Despite the compelling social and economic case for good child care for all children when their parents are working, children from less well-off families remain only half as likely to get a quality preschool experience as their more affluent peers.

There is a growing consensus that this country cannot afford to continue denying decent child care to millions of young children from working families. Yet the passage of any significant new initiative will demand a groundswell of support from all sectors of our society.

We hope to find common ground with Rep. Johnson and all concerned Americans to develop new solutions that address the child care needs of our families and children.

The writer is director of the child-care division of the Children's Defense Fund.