At least one thing about the D.C. schools is better this year than last year. This year we know that another round of massive layoffs is coming if Congress does not increase the school budget from what the city has requested. Last fall, many parents only became aware of the huge cuts when their children started the school year. Nearly 1,000 positions, or more than 1 in 10 positions in the system, were cut out.

We know now that another disaster is imminent. Testimony before Congress has made the point, and the city's newspapers have editorialized constructively and clearly in recent weeks. At a time when there is little in the way of good news, the fact that we know the bad news is at least useful.

The D.C. schools are about to become a living laboratory in lose-lose politics. First the federal side is cut and then Congress tells the city to make it up out of the local tax base. Whatever the next step elsewhere in America, the situation in the District constitutes a double whammy, because Congress appropriates the local money as well.

It may be worth going through the numbers again. Two years ago, the schools had $261.7 million. This year, after two years of tremendous inflation, the appropriation is $245.8 million. The city has asked Congress to approve $248 million for next year. The schools are the only agency of any significant size in the city government to have less money in actual dollars now than they had two years ago.

This year, as in recent years, the school system has again had to absorb unfunded inflationary costs, with dim prospects for an adequate supplemental appropriation. By mid-year, as a consequence, the school system was projecting a deficit of more than $10 million. While the school board is reducing that deficit by imposing more freezes on hiring and other expenditures, and possibly by furloughing its employees for a number of days, this still means that the basic costs will be $255 million going into next year. Pay raises, even if limited to 5 percent, and other mandated and inflationary costs will add another $20 million next year, for a total base of $275 million unless large-scale layoffs, perhaps as many as 1,000 persons, occur.

Is the gap really $27 million between what the schools need and what they are likely to get? The answer is no and yes. There definitely are savings to be realized from the $275 million level. These include factors for enrollment decreases, closing of unneeded buildings and further cuts in administrative costs. That is the "no" part of the answer. But the schools are about to lose $13 million in federal aid because of the Reagan budget cuts. This figure is almost equal to the most generous estimate of the savings available.

So the gap, just in terms of maintaining present levels of activity for next year's school population, is $25 million at the very least, and this includes not one penny for recapturing the lost ground of the past two years, to say nothing of needed innovation.

The school administration is currently preparing the doomsday scenario. At $248 million, next fall's devastation will be worse than last fall's. Classroom sizes are likely to take another jump, pre-kindergarten may be cut out altogether, kindergarten may be half day, resource teachers may be a thing of the past, specialized programs will be eliminated, the already inadequate security will suffer more, athletics may be cut back even further, and on and on. The layoffs will disrupt the schools for months, with hundreds and hundreds of teachers transferring to fill in gaps caused by the uneven impact of seniority in the layoff process.

We parents are told there is more to quality education than always asking for more money. We understand that all too well, but the fact is we aren't even asking for more money, even though we could make the case for it. All we want is that the system not take another huge cut on top of two straight years of huge cuts that have caused something like 15 percent of the teaching slots and a larger percentage of positions in other areas to vanish forever. We are willing to settle for far less than we need. We want the public and Congress to understand that we are seeking only to avoid a disaster for our children.

We parents are in fact moving vigorously to pursue more effective accountability. For example, Parents United recently did a study comapring the D.C. schools with the Montgomery Country system, which has the same number of students, to see if we could find clear areas of waste in the D.C. schools. What we found was basically the opposite: Montgomery County schools have $50 million more in state/local tax-levy (non-federal) resources than the D.C. schools have. We found that, comparatively, D.C. concentrates on the classroom: It puts 54.5 percent of its budget into classroom teacher salaries, as opposed to 51.4 percent in Montgomery County. The District puts a smaller percentage of its budget into administration. But the difference in available money matters a lot. Montgomery County has 364 more teachers, and it has 614 teacher aides as opposed to a piddling 86 in the District.

In the coming year, we parents will be doing more studies of how the D.C. schools spend their money, and we will demand an end to expenditures that don't help our children, wherever we find them. But there is no way that this will make up the $25 million-plus gap that faces the schools. Only money -- not new money, as much as that is needed, but money just to keep up with inflation and federal aid cuts -- will do that.

Other fronts must be pursued, to be sure: the active participation of all concerned citizens in the upcoming school board elections this fall, parent and citizen advocacy of a clear accounting of how funds are spent, a healthy debate on how the schools could mesh better with the city's fiscal and administrative structure. But another necessary element is funding. Quality and accountability lack any meaning when sheer lack of money has removed the basic capacity of an institution to perform and improve.

This is a critical time for the D.C. schools. A popular superintendent has left. Some members of the current school board leave many parents and citizens wondering, to say the least. The cuts these past two years, especially those last fall, have created a new middle-class exodus to private and suburban schools, and this all happened at a time when positive things had been going on. Test scores had been rising and the system seemed determined to stop "social" promotion of students from one grade to the next.

The cuts hurt many of the very items of enrichment that were producing improved results. The danger now is that these negative trends will become irreversible and that public schooling in D.C. will become a permanently inferior endeavor reserved solely for those who have no alternative. That the poor and the near-poor have little political power is axiomatic, so it is not unrealistic to project a public school system that possesses funding and quality good enough only to produce another generation so lacking in skills and employability that the cycle of poverty will surely repeat itself. We should not let that happen.