A CHANCE TO SWIM in a public pool on a hot day is worth a lot to a child. But should he or she have to pay for the privilege? That's one of the questions floating around the District government as officials seek ways to relieve the recreation department's serious fiscal woes. The department gets about $18.4 million per year to operate its swimming pools, playgrounds and parks, run 143 neighborhood centers, and otherwise meet the heavy local demand for sports, games and cultural activities. The budget won't cover the field. So facilities are not being repaired. Maintenance of the pools has been spotty. Some programs may have to be shut down.

Of course the city could, and should, give recreation a higher budget priority. As reported in the District Weekly, though, Senate Appropriations subcommittee chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and councilman William Spaulding have also asked the department to explore the possibility of charging fees for various programs and facilities. In its tentative studies so far, the department has found that about $315,000 per year could be raised through a variety of charges, such as $5 for renting a bagful of athletic equipment, $2 for an hour on a tennis court, $25 or more for renting an indoor facility, and swimming fees ranging from 25 cents per day for children to $100 for an annual family swimming pass.

Granted, all this is still at the study stage - but some of it should be shelved without further ado. Charging small fees for using equipment or renting a room for a group may be reasonable. But charging for tennis, especially daylight tennis, strikes us as a very bad idea - and charging for swimming is worse. In the life of this city, and particularly in the life of its youth, the public pools are just as vital as the basketball courts. Tennis, too, is becoming a sport for everyone - partly because the recreation department has taught so many children how to play. To restrict access to pools and courts by imposing fees would make those sports a little less public, when they ought to be even more open and free. All in all, it would be a costly way to raise a few hundred thousand dollars. Surely such a sum could be found in the city's budget - not taken out of the pockets of adults and children who happen to like these sports.