IF APPLE Computer Inc. has its way, teachers will soon be finding shiny new micro-computers on their desks courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. A bill passed last month by the House -- and a likely target for Senate action in the lame-duck session -- would allow the highly profitable manufacturer of home-size computers to take a double deduction against its income tax for the cost of equipment donated to elementary and secondary schools.

In theory, any profitable manufacturer could take advantage of the provision, but, as the House report makes explicit, Apple Computer is expected to be the prime beneficiary during the one-year life of the proposed law. The company has been the prime force behind the legislation and is set to start handing out thousands of computers.

In this increasingly wired-up world, giving children a nodding acquaintance with computers has intuitive appeal. The Educational Testing Service also reported recently that well-designed and supervised computer-assisted education can boost mathematical skills and, to a lesser extent, reading ability. But plunking down a computer in a school building doesn't guarantee that the equipment will be thoughtfully used. The programs that ETS studied required computers with much more capacity than a single Apple.

The Apple's primary usefulness would be in showing children what a computer can do. But why should the taxpayer provide a juicy subsidy for something that is already clearly in Apple's best interest to do without a subsidy? For schools would surely tend to stay with the same manufacturer when they expand and upgrade their systems.

The Senate Finance Committee's version of the bill requires that contributions be made with charitable, not just promotional, intent and that donations go to lower-income schools as well as to the more prosperous schools in which follow-on sales would be most likely. But the IRS has better things to do than gauge the depths of Apple's concern for each recipient school and make sure that those schools are geographically and economically balanced.

The Senate bill also keeps the tax subsidy alive over three years so that more manufacturers would have a chance to get in on it. That drives its estimated cost over $300 million. That's $300 million too much