WITH Republican Tom Corbett being sworn in as Pennsylvania's new governor today, I can't help but sense an impending cloud of gloom and darkness settling over the Keystone State.

With Pennsylvania facing a budget deficit possibly north of $4 billion, the incoming Corbett administration won't have an easy go of balancing the books, especially with his ideas about making more cuts to the state's programs for the poor.

And his belt-tightening will be especially tough for Philadelphia's public schools, which may be facing a nearly $500 million deficit and a continuation of the consistent underfunding from Harrisburg.

In the Philadelphia area, there have always been gross disparities between funding for public schools here and in suburban districts like many in Montgomery County, whose taxpayers can afford to contribute a lot more to education.

For months, I've been silently seething over how big this gap actually is. I was particularly perturbed recently when a high-school intern I worked with, a 17-year-old junior at Lower Merion High, told me about the preparations he and his colleagues had been making for a visit to his school last month by the L.A. Lakers.

SOMEWHERE in our discussion about the Lakers and their star Kobe Bryant, a graduate of Lower Merion High who donated nearly $500,000 for a new state-of-the-art gym, Brady told me that his high school spends more than $20,000 per student, thousands more than the amount spent in Philly.

I hadn't realized how huge the funding disparity is and certainly didn't expect to find that Lower Merion's per-pupil spending is similar to that of some of the ritziest private schools.

In thumbing through promotional literature from my own alma mater, Germantown Friends School, which is out of reach for my own children, I saw that its educational philosophy is "to seek truth, challenge the intellect, embrace the city, honor differences and nurture each student's mind and spirit."

And - as one of the top Quaker schools in the country, with a hefty $26,000 high school tuition and a huge donor base - GFS certainly has the resources to provide such an elite education.

Meanwhile, many Philadelphia public-school teachers are functioning bare-bones in their classrooms. The city's public schools have been deteriorating for decades, due in part to years of state underfunding.

Because of the projected deficit, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has mandated her managers to make plans for budget cuts ranging from 20 to 30 percent, but I can't imagine where she thinks those cuts will come from. (Perhaps she should set an example and start by slashing some of those top-brass salaries, including hers.) And with Republicans now in charge in Harrisburg, it's only a matter of time before it's going to get worse.

And our schools aren't alone.

In North Carolina, a band of conservatives are taking aim at the right of every child to receive a good education.

In one of the last states to have been forced to deal with integration, tea partiers have stacked Raleigh's school board with anti-integrationists who've pledged to abolish the "social engineering" in their school system.

The board wants to reverse the more than 50-year-old trend of busing students from poorer areas into schools in better-off ones in order to promote diversity and educational equality. That prospect prompted NAACP President Benjamin Jealous to file a civil-rights complaint. This latest movement from the South should give every American pause if they truly care about improving the nation's educational system.

Another case: The newly elected school board in Wake County, also in North Carolina, is trying to roll back the historic 1954 Supreme Court Brown decision, which ruled that a good education and diversity go hand in hand.

I can't help but wonder if that recent political swing to the right and its quest for economic, as well as racial, segregation, might also be headed north - maybe even to schools near us.

Among the other symptoms are the increasing push in many quarters to bring back the sanctity of the neighborhood school.

So I tell my kids that things will get only worse for them unless they embrace their education and make the best of the only one they're going to get.

And despite the fact that they won't have an elite-school diploma, they can still value their own magnet school, embrace the GFS philosophy - and allow their minds to be nurtured.

Fatimah Ali is a regular contributor to the Daily News, and blogs about food at healthysoutherncomforts.com.