The school budget that Mayor Barry has recently proposed to the D.C. Council should get mixed reviews at best from citizens, and parents such as ourselves, who have been looking for a clear signal that the city puts a premium on quality education for our young people. On the positive side, the FY '87 capital budget includes $58 million to repair and renovate some of the school system's badly deteriorated buildings, enough -- if well spent -- to make a real dent in the schools' $100-million-plus repair needs.

But on the negative side, the mayor's recommended funding for the school's operating budget (the part covering items such as teachers, principals, books and supplies) is $380 million, $16 million less than requested by the school system and scarcely enough to cover inflation and pay increases while maintaining current levels of services.

The $16 million eliminated by the mayor's proposal represents the cost of plans to expand full-day pre-kindergarten to 40 more elementary schools; to increase by 15 percent expenditures for texts and supplies in the senior high schools; to add one or two math and English teachers at each junior and senior high; to increase the number of guidance counsellors in senior highs; to expand special education programs; and to increase money available for building repairs.

To be sure, our school system has made real progress in recent years. Thanks to the effective leadership of Floretta McKenzie and Vincent Reed and increasingly sound guidance from the Board of Education, we know that the system can raise the educational performance of substantial numbers of students. As a result of unusually comprehensive early childhood programs and a curriculum and promotion system requiring mastery of basic skills, our elementary school achievement levels have risen steadily and now slightly exceed national norms. Real, though less dramatic, progress is evident at the junior high school level as well.

In addition, the schools have made significant strides in addressing the quality of teaching, in enlisting the private sector to support a range of cooperative ventures, and in establishing special high schools for academically gifted students and the performing arts. But justifiable pride in these achievements cannot obscure the fact that our schools have gone about as far as they can with current levels of teaching staff and support.

The principal fact to understand in assessing this year's budget debate is that the great majority of the District's school children live in a condition of pervasive poverty that poses formidable obstacles to schooling. These children have intense needs for individual attention, which is too often unavailable in the public schools, especially in the junior and senior high schools, which have never had the staff levels or compensation programs available in the elementary schools for some years.

A study released last December by Parents United for the District of Columbia Public Schools and a panel of prominent business and civic leaders illuminated this by comparing typical elementary and secondary schools in the District with others in Montgomery and Fairfax counties. Despite the distinctly greater needs of pupils in the District schools, they had less in most areas of classroom services beyond the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels. The city's schools lagged seriously in science labs and equipment, classroom aides, teachers and aides for the handicapped, library materials, texts and supplies, and sports and extra-curricular activities. For example, the typical suburban high schools in the study had almost 10 percent more teachers and twice as many aides and clerical workers as the District high school of the same size. Expenditures for texts and supplies in the suburbs averaged about 60 percent more than in the District.

Of particular importance, the small number of Fairfax County schools with higher proportions of low-income pupils have primary grade classes of only 20 pupils, whereas comparable District classes average 25 or 26 pupils, even in schools with a 100 percent concentration of disadvantaged children. Montgomery County limits high school English classes to a maximum of 28, and provides small honors sections to bright students. The typical District high school had to confine smaller English classes to some of its low achievers, while putting many of the rest, plus gifted and average students, in classes of 30 to 40 students. The typical District school has not been painted in years and exhibits major structural deficiencies, including a leaking roof, falling plaster, insecure outside doors and rotting window frames. Preventive maintenance that is routine in the suburban schools is, practically speaking, unknown in the District, which seems unable to keep up even with pressing problems.

Given this situation, an FY '87 operating budget of $425 million would have been fully justified. That figure is close to the funding level that an earlier Parents United study found necessary to implement principal recommendations of various national studies on educational excellence. Unfortunately, successive levels of review within the school system produced a budget request by the superintendent of $403 million, further cut by the Board of Educators to $396 million, and now by the mayor to $380 million.

An analysis of the city's budget shows that the public schools have consistently fared poorly compared with other city agencies. While school funding increased at a rate of 17 percent between 1983 and 1986, agencies falling under the rubric of "governmental direction and support" received a 30 percent increase. Department of Corrections funds rose 47 percent and Department of Human Services funds 52 percent. If the public schools had been treated as the average city agency, the school budget for this year would already exceed the $396 million requested for next year. If funding had equalled increases for the prisons or for welfare and health services, the schools would currently be operating with a budget of $451 to $466 million.

It is ironic that the agencies that have received the largest increases in public funding are precisely those called upon to address problems that result from past failure to provide effective educations for many District pupils. It is no surprise that 90 percent of the young men who crowd the District's prisons and more than two thirds of the young women who head single-parent families living in poverty have not completed high school. The Greater Washington Research Center, in a recent report on persistent poverty in the District of Columbia, argues that, "Over the long term, the single most effective way the District could reduce its black poverty population probably would be to increase that population's educational levels, especially among the younger poor."

Every year that the city leaves the public schools overburdened, understaffed and underfunded helps to ensure that the problems associated with poverty will persist and grow. It is time that our political leaders were prepared to invest as much in prevention as in containment. One place to start is by funding the school system's request for $396 million.