Are we supposed to cheer, laugh or cry over Bob Amparan's educational brainstorm?

Amparan is the San Diego principal whose idea it was to pay his junior high students 25 cents a day for coming to school.

Well, not exactly. "I'm not paying kids for coming to school," he explained to the Associated Press. "I'm rewarding them for being in school. There's a subtle difference."

That's subtle, all right.

Besides, says Amparan, the students won't actually get the cash. Instead, they'll get a piece of paper marked "25 cents" for each day's attendance during the previous month. A month's perfect attendance would be worth $5.

But the chits would be good only for "wholesome" foods and for such school-related items such as books, paper and library fines.

Think about it. Here's a kid who, demonstrably, doesn't like school. But Amparan is going to bribe him into showing up anyway by offering him a counterfeit quarter, to be collected next month and redeemable for library fines and celery sticks.

Any 13-year-old who went for a deal like that ought to be carted off to a sheltered workshop. There's no way he could survive unprotected. (In fact, even before the first quarter was paid, kids at Memorial Junior High were complaining that it wasn't enough.)

Actually, the idea of rewards for learning (which some of us fogies like to think of as its own reward) isn't by any means new.

I remember an experiment here, back in 1963, in which juvenile delinquent dropouts were paid for their academic exertions. But as Dr. James L. Jones, who was one of the directors of that project, reminds me, these youngsters were paid for performance on tests, with the rewards pegged to the scope and difficulty of the test. They got nothing just for showing up.

Jones is afraid that the San Diego plan will metastasize, like a runaway cancer cell. If Memorial Junior High gets it now, why not the other junior highs? And if the junior highs, why not the elementary and high schools? And since a quarter doesn't buy very much, why not raise the ante to, say, the minimum wage?

Jones fears, and so do I, that the youngsters at Memorial will wind up with some very unreal ideas of how the world works, of what education is about and of what things are worth money to whom.

But isn't Bob Amparan entitled to at least one cheer for trying to get his pupils interested in school?

Maybe. But there are a couple of things you ought to know. Memorial Junior High, located in one of the poorest, most crime-ridden sections of San Diego, has the highest truancy rate in the city. By the end of last year, upward of 15 percent of the 800-plus students (70 percent Hispanic and 28 percent black) were absent on any given day.

And that raises the possibility that Amparan's plan (unanimously adopted by Memorial trustees) is not so much ludicrous as cynical.

"If it works," he told the AP, "besides enticing these youngsters back for an education, this could save us thousands of dollars."

I find myself almost hoping it doesn't work. It appears that a lot of youngsters have decided that there's not much going on at Memorial that interests them. Perhaps they could be bribed into showing up anyway, but quite possibly at the cost of disrupting the education of the children who are there to learn.

And by the way, what will Amparan do when he finds his harassed teachers offering some of the more disruptive youngsters 30 cents a day not to show up?