FIVE YEARS AGO, the dispute in the Perry County, Miss., school system was about basketball. The local high school had an enrollment that was half black and half white; there were two basketball coaches, one of each race. In spite of this neat and equal arrangement, though, it seemed the best basketball players were black and the white boys spent most of the time on the bench. The school board ordered the coaches to let more white boys play, but the federal government, finding that such forced integration of the team would constitute discrimination against the good black players, cut off all the county's federal education money.

A couple of years later, a court-appointed desegregation administrator in Cleveland, Ohio, went farther. He decided that the school basketball teams had to be at least 20 percent white while the baseball teams had to be at least 50 percent black. A judge with common sense threw out the plan, but the idea that school teams requiring a skill of some kind must be racially balanced is still around. The latest example is in Los Angeles, where the local school district has just decreed that high school teams in academic competitions must reflect the racial and sexual composition of the student bodies at schools.

All these quotas for competitive school teams are sadly misguided. Some students obviously will be better basketball players and some will excel at mathematics. The trick is to develop each child's personal capacities to the fullest. It is nonsense to put someone on a basketball team because she is short, fat and white or to choose a boy for the "It's Academic" team because he represents the tall, Albanian group in the English lit class. Even more ludicrous than these policies is the contradictory one in Los Angeles that tolerates racially unbalanced sports teams but not academic teams because "athletic competition is primarily a question of physical skill, which is somewhat more inherent than intellectual skill."

Here is a rule that's sensible and fair: every student is eligible to compete for a place on every team. Students of all races should be encouraged to do so by practices that make plain that no racial or sexual discrimination will work against them. But places on the team should go to those who have the greatest ability -- whether it's in speed and slam- dunking or language and literature -- and who are willing to put in the time and effort to perfect those skills. That's the way Redskins are chosen, and cancer researchers and opera singers. To teach children that life offers different standards is to do them a terrible disservice.