Day care is the most neglected area of U.S. public policy for children.

It isn’t only a matter of spending — although the difference between what’s budgeted for babies and toddlers and what goes to educate older kids is stark. In 2008, federal, state and local governments together invested about $300 for every child of 2 or younger on day care, while spending almost $11,000 per 6-year-old to 11-year-old on education and afterschool programs, according to an Urban Institute study.

Just as important is the way day care has been short-changed on attention. Although some states set a high bar for quality and safety — North Carolina and Delaware, for example, inspect centers regularly and pay more generous government support to better operations — others enforce only limited standards.

Twelve states require no CPR training for licensed child-care providers, and 29 demand no instruction in how to prevent sudden infant death syndrome.

Up to now, the federal government has mainly left regulation to states’ discretion. This is about to change, in what we hope will be the first of several steps — by the Obama administration, Congress and the states — toward better child-care quality and safety.

Next month, the Department of Health and Human Services will begin to finalize new rules for the half a million child-care centers nationwide that receive federal money through the Child Care and Development Block Grant program.

For the first time, such centers will have to undergo annual, unannounced inspections to ensure that they comply with fire, health and building codes and that staff members are looking out for children’s health and safety. All caregivers will be required to undergo background checks, including fingerprinting, and be trained in such health practices as CPR, safe sleeping, poison prevention, allergy management, nutrition and basic child development.

What’s more, states will need to post online quality information about all such centers, make it easier for eligible parents to sign up for federal vouchers, and stop automatically canceling support if the parents lose their jobs.

It’s a shame it has taken a decade and a half since the program was instituted to come up with such basic standards. But never mind, if policymakers are finally awakening to the sorry state of day care in the United States.

The very young are extraordinarily vulnerable. Science has shown how, when babies or small children are deprived of close attention, their stress responses work overtime, weakening their brains — at least as much as if the children had been physically hurt. Such children later have trouble learning, paying attention, developing coordination, building confidence and managing their own behavior.

The case for protecting America’s youngest is irresistible. So it’s good to see bipartisan support in the Senate for reauthorizing the block-grant program, which would write into law the new federal safeguards — and then some. The reauthorization bill, which we hope will be acted on this fall, would strengthen background checks by requiring searches of sex-offender and abuse-and-neglect registries in every state where the employee has lived in the past 10 years.

The law would also gradually raise to 10 percent the amount of block-grant money that states must devote to improving child-care quality. Currently, that floor is just 4 percent.

The gain for society if all young children got the best possible care would be enormous. Policymakers have neglected this need long enough.

Bloomberg News (July 26)