America's public schools are going to hell for want of academic and disciplinary standards, right?

Well, suppose your school district set up a handful of schools that emphamsized the old values: discipline, academic rigor, respect and regular homework. And suppose that applicants for these traditional schools overwhelmed the space available for them.What would you do?

You'd probably fall on your knees in prayers of thanksgiving (not in school, of course) and quickly move to convert more regular schools to the traditional curriculum.

Unless you happen to live in Louisville, Ky.

The Jefferson County (Louisville) school district has five traditional schools -- a high school, a middle school and three elementary schools -- and a waiting list of more than 4,000.

But expansion of the traditional, academically rigorous program to include more of the system's 90,000 students isn't easy as it might seem.

For one thing, the county is under a desegregation order that requires each school to have a black enrollment of approximately 20 percent. But only about 7 percent of the applicants for traditional education are black. As recently as last fall, the figure was less than 1 percent.

Attendance at the traditional schools is voluntary.

But if the schools are so good -- parents are positively lyrical in their praise -- why aren't more blacks interested?

"The traditional schools were created at the time of desegregation here," explains Superintendent David DeRuzzo. "Louisville's schools were some 60 percent black at the time they were merged with Jefferson County. A lot of black parents see the schools as a development for middle-class whites -- as a way of opting out of the desegregation program."

And so, apparently, do a lot of white parents.

"I don't think there's any question but that many white parents visualize the traditional schools as a homogeneous situation, where everybody has the same values," DeRuzzo said in a telephone interview. "They like the idea of getting out of the busing program and sending their children to a school where the people are all the same."

Not that they escape busing. Indeed, according to DeRuzzo, attendance at the traditional schools is likely to involve more busing, not less, since many of the students have to transfer one or more times.

DeRuzzo acknowledges that there are some problems with the traditional format. For one thing, the special schools have virtually no vocational education or general business course. As a result, they tend to skim the best of the academic talent, depressing still further the achievement levels at the regular schools.

Expansion of the traditional program would exacerbate that problem almost to the point of disaster, he said.

In addition, the stricter discipline of the traditional schools can be unsettling to children used to a more tolerant atmosphere, he said. In fact, many black parents say that the "discipline" often amounts to racism.

DeRuzzo says, however, that the black parents who do attend the traditional schools tend to like them. He also discounts the low black percentage on the waiting lists. White students sign up early because of the fierce competition to get in, he said. But black students often wait until the last minute, knowing that the 20 percent requirement means they can always get in.

Still, the unequal attractiveness the special schools have for white and black students creates a dilemma for the school system. Meeting the unequivocal demands of white parents could result in a resegregated school system, with the whites attending academically superior schools.

DeRuzzo, superintendent only since last summer, has proposed to the school board that the dilemma be resolved by installing the best features of traditional curriculum in all the schools.

Critics say this approach can only lead to the watering down of standards that creaed the long waiting list in the first place.