A budget cut in the bloated D.C. school system will not make District schools worse. If the system had to fire some administrators, it might even improve the schools.

Nor will spending $500 million to equalize expenditures in Virginia's school districts make the state's schools equally good. The same is true of Maryland's schools -- better-funded schools do not mean better schools.

The extra amenities that Fields Road School in Gaithersburg can afford, for example, do not necessarily make it a better school than Preston Elementary in Caroline County {"In Maryland, a Tale of Two Schools; Amenities, Staff, Define the Gap Between Rich and Poor Districts," front page, Jan. 14}.

Education researchers have studied the relationship between spending and performance and have surprised themselves by discovering essentially no relationship at all.

During the past 40 years, spending per student in U.S. public schools (when adjusted for inflation) has quadrupled to more than $5,000 a student. Yet student achievement has fallen; Scholastic Aptitude Test scores fell from an average of 978 in 1963 to 890 in 1980 and have remained essentially flat since.

This is not just a result of a larger group of students taking the test -- from 1972 to 1988 the number of high school seniors scoring above 600 on the SAT's verbal section fell by about 30 percent. In 1988 only 986 students in the whole country scored above 750 on the verbal section of the SAT -- fewer than half as many as in 1981 and probably the lowest number ever.

Internationally, we see the same pattern -- or lack of a pattern. The United States spends significantly more of its GNP on education than do France, Finland, the United Kingdom, South Korea and Spain, among other countries. Yet students from these countries outperform Americans on math tests. Our leading economic competitors, Japan and West Germany, also spend less on education and achieve better test results.

So what does all this mean for schools in Maryland, Virginia and the District?

It means they should stop worrying about how much money to spend and start looking for structural improvements in the way they provide education.

The real problem is that our public schools are a monopoly system with almost no competition. With competition, suppliers have to do a better job in order to attract customers -- if private firms can't please their customers, they go out of business. But if the Maryland, Virginia or District school system does a bad job, it asks for more money. What kind of incentive system is that?

D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer should adopt an idea proposed by the Brookings Institution's John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe in their book "Politics, Markets and America's Schools": educational choice. One such choice would be a program of vouchers or tax credits that would allow parents to choose any school -- public or private -- that they thought would be best for their child.

Such a system would give poor and middle-class families the same consumer clout that rich parents have now. It would mean that a single mother in Anacostia would have, say, $5,000 to spend on each child's education rather than being forced to send her children to the local public school where they are more likely to be sold drugs than taught to read.

A statewide voucher program would give students in Caroline County, Md., and southwest Virginia a chance at better education without taking money from Montgomery and Fairfax counties. It also would be a cost-effective and market-oriented route to revitalizing our stagnant schools.

I hope Dixon, Wilder and Schaefer are listening.

-- David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of Education and the Inner City.