William A. Early, 72, a former superintendent of Arlington County public schools and a past president of the National Education Association, died Dec. 26 at his home in Clarksville, Va. He had suffered from a heart ailment.

Mr. Early served as school superintendent in Arlington County from 1949 through 1952. During this time he administered a $13 million school building program, modernized curriculum and updated physical equipment.

He was appointed superintendent by the first popularly elected school board in Virginia.

His work in Arlington brought him national recognition, and was a subject of a March of Time film feature and an article in the Saturday Evening Post.

Mr. Early was president of the NEA from 1953 to 1954. He was elected to that post after supporters pointed out that as president of the Virginia Education Association from 1948 to 1950, he had helped institute a statewide salary schedule for Virginia teachers, helped secure legislation for $130 million for school buildings in Virginia, and helped develop better working conditions and retirement benefits for teachers.

He later served in the Montgomery County public school system for 11 years, first as director of curriculum development, and then as administrative director for personnel, before he retired in 1970.

Among his many other education posts were president of the County Superintendents Association of the United States from 1949 to 1950, and president of the NEA's department of rural education from 1950 to 1951.

Mr. Early, a direct descendant of Confederate Gen. Jubal A. Early, was a native of Virginia. He earned a bachelor's degree at Emory and Henry College, Emory, Va., and a master's degree at Duke University.

He taught school for 13 years, and then served as superintendent for years in the Norfolk County public school system before taking the job in Arlington.

From 1952 to 1958, he was superintendent for public schools in Chatham County and Savannah in Georgia.

Mr. Early was a member of the board of directors of the Methodist Children's Home in Richmond, and the Federal Schoolmen's Club.

He is survived by his wife, Glenna, of the home, and a son, William A. Jr., of Takoma Park.