The U.S. government is on the verge of trying to bribe its way out of facing a fundamental challenge.

The challenge is to make American public schools into a system that, by definition, will aid in the process of achieving educational and economic parity in our society.

What we may get instead is accelerated deterioration of public education and perpetuation of a system that breeds both racism and classism.

The bribe is the tempting tax credit that congressional legislation would offer middle-class families who pay public school taxes as well as private school tuition. Pending legislation would allow a tax credit of up to $500 a year for each tuition-paying child in elementary, secondary and vocational schools as well as college.

The middle class - disgusted on one hand by disappointing public education and crunched economically on the other hand - is making its clout felt among legislators. It wants relief.

The main attempts to provide that relief are the Senate's Packwood-Moynihan bill for tax credit and the Cabinet proposal for a grant-in-aid program to families with incomes over $16,000. But neither approach offers relief from the real problem, and that is that our public schools don't work. And taking a piece out of the middle-class tax bite really won't help.

We must make a determination to save and improve the society's public schools. We must educate the masses, not just the classes, and only the public school system can do that.

Over the last decade, all of society made some progress in increasing the options for a number of black, Spanish-speaking and other groups traditionally left out of education. And because it is a mix now - of black, brown and white, of rich and poor - there has been some progress toward resolving problems of racism and classism in public schools.

If the money that the proposed tax credit or grant-in-aid would make available were used instead to improve public education, the need to provide relief for those paying private school bills would be greatly reduced.

It is estimated that either program would cost us $5 billion or more a year. That money and more should be used to resurrect American public education, not to bury it.