Utah school districts and institutions of higher learning have been under orders to attempt to determine how their budgets would be affected by passage of the three tax reform measures on the ballot in November.

It has been an exercise in frustration - much like trying to tap dance on quicksand.They have been faced with estimates of the initiatives' effect that vary from 6 percent to 18 percent - and with the knowledge that anything they conclude about the effects could be invalidated by the Legislature.

Most have settled on 13 percent, a figure right in the middle. They have prepared "alternative" budgets showing where cuts could be made to accommodate a reduced amount of income at the district level.

The "hit lists" include everything from dropping programs such as kindergarten to enlarging class size and laying off teachers.

Because public education will be zinged from three sides if all the initiatives pass, it has been particularly hard to try to figure out what the net result will be. They say it is impossible to trim budgets by the amount likely to be required if the initiatives pass without getting into the meat of education.

By this time of year under normal circumstances, education is usually well into the annual budget process. That process has been stymied and confused by the uncertain shadows cast by the Nov. 8 decision still to come.

Education can't, in fact, anticipate how the initiatives would affect budgets because of the variables that can't be settled until the decision of the electorate has been made.

For public education, the problem is compounded by the knowledge that if property taxes are capped, the Legislature will have to redesign the funding programs that come from that source.

In all the uncertainty, some things are perfectly clear.

If Utah voters favor the initiatives, the 1989 Legislative session will be a dog fight for the smaller pot of funds that taxes will generate in the future.

Some tax cut proponents say the Legislature is likely to give public education the same emphasis it has had in the past, preserving the funding at a comparable level.

That would mean other units of government would take a disproportionate share of the cuts, and I expect they wouldn't take them lying down. The 1989 session could be, in a word, chaotic.

Educators have been accused of using "scare tactics" in their threats to eliminate kindergarten and other programs such as vocational education, transportation, and other services Utahns are used to seeing as part of the educational offering. There is, however, a reality in the matter that rises from the way school programs are presently financed.

The basic program is set by the Legislature each year and funds allotted to this program are preserved exclusively for the classroom requirements the Legislature has set. Other programs, including kindergarten, are funded as categories. It would be simpler to cut the categories than to dip into the basic program, which education leaders say has been, at best, underfunded for several years already.

Maybe kindergarten is considered expendable, but its loss would have a troublesome ripple effect down the line.

Years ago, kindergarten was a preparatory situation to give 5-year-olds a taste of school and prepare them socially for that experience - an intermediate step from home to full-time school.

The program has evolved in recent decades to the point that kindergarten has become in many ways a preparatory academic program for reading, writing and mathematics. If the program is lost or reduced, many first graders will start from scratch.

Those involved in kindergarten fear its loss would widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Many families that could afford it would put their children into private pre-school or kindergarten programs and send them to school much better prepared than their peers who could not have that experience.

The arguments will go on, no doubt, regarding kindergarten and every other program or service that has been on the lists of potential cutback areas.

In the end, depending on scores of variables that will have to be thrashed out by the Legislature, the picture may look nothing like the scenarios that have been advanced by educators under pressure.