American taxpayers may end up paying $25 million for a program to qualify teachers as "professionals" -- a tag that teachers will use as a club to get higher salaries for the same qualifications.

The Department of Education is less than excited about the idea, which is being pushed, predictably, by teachers' unions. But those unions have a good chance of getting their program adopted by Congress. This is an election year, the unions are generous campaign contributors, and incumbents want to look like they have done their bit for schools.

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a private group based in Detroit, has asked Congress for $25 million to develop a teacher certification program. The board has promised to get another $25 million from corporations.

On the surface, the idea makes sense. Teacher certification would work much like doctor certification by the American Medical Association or lawyer certification by the American Bar Association. By 1993, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards would develop a voluntary accreditation process for teachers to pass if they wanted to be certified as professional teachers.

The standards, theoretically, would be higher than those now imposed by state governments that handle teacher certification. But questions remain whether individual school districts would require national certification or whether teachers would simply use it as another plaque on the wall to prove that they are worth more money than their peers. Teachers have longed for a sheepskin that would label them as professionals, and this could be it.

There is no disagreement in Congress or the Education Department that higher teacher standards are desirable, but some in Congress don't think that the taxpayers should give $25 million to a private group to award pieces of paper.

"It's inappropriate for the federal government to fund the development of a certification standard for any profession," said Christopher Cross, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement.

National Board President James A. Kelly told us that federal funding is justified because "a traditional role for the federal government is to conduct research and development that addresses important issues in education." Kelly said the purpose of the program would be to give teachers incentive to become better teachers.

Teachers are not only interested in becoming better. They are also interested in making more money. Sources in Congress told our associate Tim Warner that the teacher certification system would likely be used by the 2 million-member National Education Association and the 750,000-member American Federation of Teachers as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations.

"They're trying to create a master teacher category with the accreditation and then will demand more money from state budgets for those who pass the National Board's accreditation," one congressional source told us. The presence on the board of senior union officials bolsters those fears.

The request for the grant is now before a House-Senate conference committee on the Equity and Excellence in Education Act of 1990 (HR 5115).