FOR SOME time now, it appears, the D.C. public school system has engaged in a shell game over student enrollment that calls into question the competence and credibility of some of its highest officials. An example can be found in the proud words of the city's original fiscal 1991 budget submission. Based on inaccurate information supplied by the school system, the budget document declared that there were 89,000 students in the city's schools, a figure that represented "a continued stabilization" in the 1980s. "The growing confidence in our public schools, as evidenced by students leaving private schools to enter the District of Columbia Public Schools, also adds to this balance."

We now know that nothing of the sort was true, that there were only 81,300 students and that the declines continued throughout the last decade. What we didn't know was why the figures submitted were so misleading. School Superintendent Andrew Jenkins said his administration's failure to give accurate figures to the D.C. Council during school budget negotiations this year was an accident. That, too, appears to be untrue.

An internal school system audit has revealed that top school officials deliberately withheld an accurate head count from the D.C. Council. According to the audit, deputy superintendent Arthur Hawkins told the school system's budget director, Linden DeJoseph, to "pull out" the lower enrollment figure from documents requested by the council. Mr. Hawkins told auditors that he thought the lower figures were not supposed to be released. That is a flimsy and unpersuasive explanation. Moreover, the auditors drew a portrait of widespread incompetence in this most simple of tasks -- counting students. Attendance records in various schools were in disarray, and school-system researchers knew, in January 1989, that enrollment figures were grossly inflated.

The special misfortune here is that this was a year in which there was a powerful groundswell of support for the school system. The Committee on Public Education, a panel of prominent civic leaders, convincingly argued for increased school funding. Even our embattled and distracted mayor seemed anxious to accede to that request. This very week, in fact, school officials are on the Hill, again requesting more funds from Congress. Surely, it does not require genius to realize that such ridiculous embarrassments imperil these requests and call into question the basic competence of the officials who let them happen.