WHAT I REMEMBER most about early childhood is that everything that happened to me was for my own good.

When my mother practically pinned a "kick me" sign on my back by sending me to violin lessons instead of baseball practice, it was for my own good.

If she made me choke down a spoonful of cod-liver oil to ward off some malady that I never heard of, it was for my own good.

You may not appreciate this now, we've all told our children at one time or another, but you'll thank me for it someday.

Who will today's children thank a generation from now when they consider the 2010 national debate on education spending?

Backers of a Democrat bill that would spend $230 billion to forestall as many as 275,000 public schoolteacher layoffs this year say we can't afford not to do this "for the children."

Republicans opposing the bill are equally adamant. Every dollar we add to our deficit, they argue, will mortgage the future for our children and grandchildren.

What future? Our children, of all races and economic backgrounds, are barely able to compete in the global economy now. Our best universities are overrun with foreign students, and American companies are shifting operations overseas where they can get both their highly skilled and low-wage workers at a discount.

So, how can anyone with good sense actually believe we have more teachers than we need? When one out of every two ninth-graders in inner-city schools is likely to drop out, can we afford the luxury of fewer teachers?

That's what the cod-liver-oil opponents of education spending want to spoon-feed us. Our children will be better off in the long run, they argue, if we don't keep spending their future to finance their present.

But the present reality for too many American children is that this tug-of-war over funding is all about what education costs, not what it's worth.

A case in point is the argument over bills introduced in the Senate by Tom Harkin, of Iowa, and in the House by George Miller, of California. The "Keep Our Educators Working" acts, as they are being billed, would send $23 billion to states that are facing teacher layoffs. Some states are looking to cut up to 15 percent of their public-school teaching staffs.

In New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Chris Christie has had to cut $15 billion from his state budget, cuts in education spending could lead to as many as 3,000 layoffs in districts that can't or won't make up the difference by raising local taxes.

Christie is an opponent of the public-school bureaucracy, especially teachers unions. His proposal to freeze teacher salaries that were negotiated in good faith by both sides is just an attack on his favorite whipping boy. His plan to give tax breaks to companies that give scholarships to private schools for children from families with incomes far above the poverty line supports private schools with the same pot of public money he won't use to support public schools.

Even in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Rendell is seeking a $340 million hike over last year's education spending, the Pennsylvania State Education Association estimates that 3,000 jobs will be lost. Districts in Bucks and Montgomery counties are having to consider layoffs on top of budget cuts and tax hikes.

In Kansas, several districts are considering a four-day school week. Summer school is being scaled back or eliminated all over America. Yet there isn't a credible expert on Earth who believes our children need less school or fewer teachers.

Less than a dime of every public-education dollar comes from Washington. This $23 billion to retain teachers would be a step in the right direction.

The opponents call it another bailout. But I'm OK with that.

I'd sooner bail out schools now than to try to explain to undereducated citizens 20 years from now why we bailed out Wall Street but not public schools.

I don't think they will thank us for that someday.

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith