LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY. — Louisville, Kentucky -- You join the Jefferson County Teachers Association here in honoring the 42 high school youngsters who most exemplify the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr., and a chilling thought strikes you:
In all our political jousting over America's sick economy, of its growing economic warfare with Japan, almost no politician is willing to say that we have never educated America's children to compete with the Japanese, the Germans or anyone else.
In these find-someone-else-to-blame days, you hear many people who want to blame ''Japanese cheating,'' the ''greed'' of American corporate executives, the influx of immigrants, the multicultural, mixed-race American work force, the labor unions that exact high wages, and on and on, for this society's economic woes.
But have you heard anyone saying that we built lousy cars for years, and lost the manufacturing of TVs and VCRs and lots more to foreigners, because our leaders were too dumb to
educate the minority Americans who make up a tremendous portion of our work force?
''Education'' has become a lip-serviced institution that is largely dishonored in the budget committees and polling places of most communities of America. Politicians talk about bond issues and other initiatives for education, but few persuade their voters to pay for the trained intelligence that is so vital to our standard of living and our security.
The fad is to look for painless shortcuts to good schools.
We have state lotteries, plus many other kinds of gambling to finance education. But the mobsters and hustlers wind up with most of the money, and our children get short-changed.
Gov. Pete Wilson of California has come up with an outrageous proposal to reduce welfare payments and spend the money on education, which is worse than pretending that gamblers will make our children book- and computer-friendly.
Does Mr. Wilson or anyone else really believe that taking money for shelter, food, health care from the 13.4 million children who live in poverty is going to enable us to ''educate'' our children? A hungry, semi-homeless kid whose nose is running all day isn't going to learn much that's worth a damn.
We need the opposite of Governor Wilson's scheme. If we educate our children to become achievers and providers, that will reduce the welfare rolls magically.
Mr. Wilson, like others, is using the word ''education'' to sugar-coat a pill that really means, ''blame the poor.''
President Bush, Governor Wilson and others are anguished politically by December figures showing that 8.9 million Americans are unemployed.
The reality is that some 2 million more jobless are uncounted. I keep hammering on the facts about who cannot find work. It's 6.3 percent of the whites in the work force looking for jobs, 9.7 percent of Hispanics and 12.7 percent of blacks. Among the desperate job-seekers are 17.3 percent of white teen-agers and 36 percent of black teen-agers.
What do we expect in terms of America's inability to compete, of its huge welfare bills, of rampant crime, of desertions and divorces, when we leave so many millions of Americans in ignorance, and thus economic despair?
The future will be bleak for the jobless, and for America, until a real ''education president,'' some ''education governors'' and others give the leadership that rises above racism, selfishness and paranoia and produces life-lifting educations for all colors and classes.
Failure to produce a universal and, yes, costly system of education is what is killing America -- in the international bazaars, and in our streets.
Carl. T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.