WHENEVER young parents ask me about the challenges they'll face if they educate their kids in the Philadelphia public schools, I tell them about the gaps that don't exist in wealthier districts.

For instance, my daughter's elementary school had skimpy art, phys-ed and music programs. So we enrolled her in classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Found her a martial-arts studio where she could burn off energy. Signed her up for guitar lessons.

It was easy, though not cheap, to plug these holes, because the city abounds with excellent kids' arts and athletic activities. As long as core academics - things we couldn't address - were handled well at our daughter's school (they were), my husband and I found that we could round out her education in areas that were lacking.

So I felt confident telling parents, "It's not easy. But it's definitely possible to make Philadelphia public education work for your family."

That was before yesterday.

Now, after learning of the worst-case scenario if the school district can't close a $629 million budget hole, I'd be tempted to tell them: "Forget it. It's impossible."

The threatened cuts won't create new gaps for already tapped-out parents to fill. They'll jettison basics that no parent can recreate.

The district is threatening to kill off summer school entirely, which will plunge our high-school-dropout rate further into the crapper.

End all athletics, even though school sports provide some of the most wholesome and healthy ways for kids to experience accomplishment.

Ax its gifted-and-talented programs, giving lie to our harangue that children should push themselves to their highest academic potential.

School climate would take an awful hit, too, since the district would increase class size while laying off 111 teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses.

Meantime, our buildings will be dirtier (say goodbye to 170 custodians), our students more thwarted (farewell, all bilingual counseling assistants) and our classrooms and hallways more dangerous (sayonara, 163 school police officers).

Honestly, if the district guts itself this way, families with the ability to do better by their kids will abandon the schools.

Not because they don't believe in public education. But because gaps they once bridged through hard work have widened to sinkholes that no effort can fill.

As for families with no means to improve their kids' educational lot, we might as well give their struggling schools a new slogan:

"Every Child Left Behind."

At Public Citizens for Children and Youth, flabbergasted administrators spent yesterday "pulling ourselves off the floor" after hearing the proposed cuts, said Christie Balka, PCCY's director of child care and budget policy.

What we're witnessing, she said, is an unraveling of this country's 150-year-old commitment to the notion that every child deserves a good education, not just those whose parents can buy it privately.

"The purpose of public education was to build an informed citizenry and workforce, the thought being that you couldn't be a responsible member of society without one," said Balka. "Now we have a governor trying to balance his budget on the backs of children."

Lucky for him, his kids are grown. The rest of us aren't as lucky.

Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: