A divided Montgomery County Board of Education voted yesterday to endorse the concept of homework as vital to the learning experience, but it backed off from a proposal to make regular homework assignments mandatory.

On a 5-to-2 vote, with board president Herbert Bennington and member Marian Greenblatt dissenting, the board voted to "reaffirm that homework is a beneficial and important part of a student's instructional program."

Yesterday's vote capped almost a year of debate that began last December when Greenblatt, complaining that many students are assigned little or no homework, urged the board to adopt a policy of mandatory regular homework assignments.

That proposal drew immediate fire from teacher and principal organizations who contended that it amounted to an intrusion into the professional expertise of the educators.

Greenblatt immediately criticized the policy adopted yesterday as being "not worth the paper it's written on. It has no teeth and it won't stop people from doing anything they've already been doing."

It was defended by board member Verna Fletcher, who cosponsored the measure with Blair Ewing.

"I agree homework is important, but the question is should the board mandate it? A mandate means we have teachers assigning homework whether they want to or not," Fletcher said!

"A teacher doesn't have that much control," argued Henry B. Heller, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. "The students, by their very nature and their very attitudes, influence how much homework can be given and how much can be covered in class." Regular, mandatory homework, Heller added, could add considerably to the load of paperwork teachers already have to carry.

Board president Bennington, however, argued that without homework, it is often impossible for learning to take place.

"To me, homework is the key work in education," said Bennington. "If you work in foreign languages or in math or in biology, it is important to do homework. You cannot learn algebra unless you do algebra problems. You cannot learn French unless you do vocabulary. If you don't have work for kids to do, you are gypping the kids."

Although all school systems in the Washington area say they encourage teachers to assign homework on a regular basis, only Fairfax and Alexandria have adopted formal policies in terms of time the assignments should take.

Arguing in favor of the resolution adopted by the Montgomery board yesterday, Ewing said that "homework is a valuable adjunct," but he added that there are other ways to raise educational standards.