If America's 16,000 school districts have any one challenge in common, chances are it can be summed up in one word: money. Indeed, the very structure of today's diverse educational system - utilizing specialists, media centers, bilingual teachers, computers, etc. - has strained the resources of many districts. Add that the government has sharply reduced its overall spending on education during the period 1980-1983 - it has fallen 29 percent after adjustment for inflation - and it is understandable why many school districts have had to cut back services.
Clearly American taxpayers will have to exercise great ingenuity in finding new ways to fund the nation's schools. That is not to say that the resources most needed by schools are just financial. They are not. Nor is it to say that Americans have been indifferent to educational needs. It is to their credit that they have contributed so generously to education over the years. Between 1945 and 1975 the share of the nation's GNP devoted to education rose from 2 percent to 8 percent. That percentage has fallen somewhat in recent years because of a shrinking school-age population.
But, given the rising costs of education, Americans must not slacken in that support. To do so would be self-defeating. Consider the fact that welfare programs and unemployment compensation to offset illiteracy cost US taxpayers over $6 billion annually. Some $6.6 billion is spent annually to keep 750,000 largely illiterate prisoners in jail. American corporations spend billions of dollars annually to teach their employees functional skills in reading, writing, and computation. Would not that money be better spent on schooling?
What can be done to ensure that US schools receive the financial support they need?
* Expand the tax base. That means going beyond an exclusive reliance on the local property tax. Such a reliance is no longer possible for two practical reasons: In many jurisdictions legal limits have now been imposed on property tax hikes. Further, most home and property owners no longer have children in elementary or secondary schools and therefore the ''constituency'' for schools is falling off sharply in many communities. Alternatives to the property tax include state funding, or so-called ''equalization'' programs. In fact state spending now constitutes roughly 47 percent of all funding for public schools. Another alternative: enact special municipal user fees earmarked for schools.
The political task, of course, will be to find alternative sources of funding for schools without losing local control over education, which has been one of the great strengths of the US educational system.
* Make better use of existing budgets. This is particularly necessary for big city school systems that have large administrative staffs. School systems, like all administrative operations, can look for ways of eliminating waste and inefficiency.
* Tap the resources of private industry. Businesses can ''adopt a school'': by contributing money or personnel - providing math or science specialists, for example. Another approach is to offer job-training or job-placement services to a school or school system.
* Call on private citizens. Retired persons, parents, grandparents, and others could be asked to help out in schools as appropriate.
* Ensure a vigorous federal role. Simply providing large infusions of aid will not solve the nation's educational needs. But slashing federal expenditures under the guise of economy is also a dubious approach. There is a strong case for continuing federal funding to ensure access as well as appropriate instruction for minorities and the handicapped; to provide science and math instruction; and to develop federal programs to help underwrite master-teacher or merit pay plans.
Total federal outlays on education now constitute only about 10 percent of what schools spend. Surely a nation that spends $5 billion a year on video games can devote a tiny share of the federal budget to education. It is illogical that at a time of rising educational demands the administration's proposed 1984 education budget is 13 percent less than the approved 1983 budget.
Every dollar well spent on education is an investment in the nation's future. It is clear that taxpayers want cost-effective education. It is equally clear that the improvements in educational quality which appeal to the public carry a price tag. Talking about reform without a willingness to underwrite its costs would merely defer the revitalization of public education so needed in American society today.