WASHINGTON. — CAN YOU IMAGINE a situation in which the pupils raise more money for public schools by selling candy and magazines than elected officials raise through local taxes?
Floyd County, Kentucky, in 1988.
Can you imagine a school district so short of money that it couldn't hire nine badly-needed teachers, a counselor, people to teach art, music and physical education, and regularly ran out of chalk and paper?
Bell County, in the poor mining region of southeastern Kentucky.
But that was before Bell and 65 other Kentucky counties filed a lawsuit arguing that it violated the rights of many thousands of children to have their educational system spend well over $3,000 per pupil in metropolitan suburbs, but less than $1,800 per student in wretched Appalachian counties.
As one who has railed and pleaded in this column for years for action to close the shameful gap between education money for poor and rich kids, I read with pleasure an article about what Kentucky is now doing in the October issue of NEA Today, the newspaper of the National Education Association.
The Kentucky Supreme Court struck down as unfair and unconstitutional the state's school-finance system last year. It mandated the state legislature to order and finance a massive overhaul of the public education system. Similar lawsuits are pending in several other states.
The great news is that Kentucky's lawmakers decreed that at least $2,900 is to be spent annually on every child in public schools, and the legislature appropriated a $400 million yearly increase in funds to ensure this. Bell County, for example, in this school year, has an additional $2 million with which to hire needed teachers and counselors. Plus discretionary funds of $100 per classroom to ensure that the pupils will never be without chalk and paper.
Excuse me if I say, one more time, that this is what I have been clamoring for in dozens of columns: states allocating their resources, however meager, to guarantee that children born in poverty have the same chance at trained intelligence as those who grow up in shelters of wealth.
I have been what you may regard as a pestering advocate of ''early intervention'' into the lives of 3- and 4-year-olds who are ''at risk'' because of the terrible deprivation that surrounds them, from inception in the womb until the first day they see a teacher. Kentucky is now funding pre-school programs for such youngsters. It has upgraded its school programs for children below the fourth grade, which will be the salvation of millions of youngsters.
But I know, as I suspect the National Education Association and Kentucky officials do, that $2,900 a pupil is not enough in this high-tech world. The federal government must become as bold as the Kentucky legislature and say, ''We have a school-equalization plan, too. We'll allocate funds to ensure that all the children of Kentucky will have spent on them what we know must be the national minimum -- say, $4,000 per pupil, for every child from the Mississippi Delta to Appalachia to Michigan's Upper Peninsula.''
I have found it frustratingly hard to jar Americans out of their nation-destroying stinginess, their racial and elitist bigotries, where public education is at issue. Thank you, Kentucky, for showing what can be done.