NEVER UNDERESTIMATE the power of a bad idea to generate bad arguments. Vice President Monddale's remarks the other day in favor of te creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Education were an example. The vice president, in a briefing, made the point that the United States "is the only major industrial democarcy in the world that does not have a department or a ministry of education," although, to our certain knowledge, this is neither a symptom nor a source of what is wrong with American education. Mr. Mondale, according to the news story, also suggested that education "suffers because its highest official "is not at that Cabinet table speaking directly to the persident. '"

You would hardly judge from any of this that the United States is also the only major industrial democracy (or any sort of country) in the world in which three-quarters of the children graduate from high school, and half of those graduates go on to college. And we also question whether, despite the proponents' assurances, a new federal department would not subtly and unwisely enlarge the federal jurisdiction in the schools. In theory anyway, education remains a primary function of the states and localities, which is surely one reason this country has not had a national ministry of education as part of its political tradition. We think it is a tradition worth holding on to.

It is, of course, true that much of the money for our public schools now comes from general revenues and that there has been a vast increase of federal involvement in public education over the past couple of decades. But both the money and the involvement can be managed by government instrumentalities now available to do so. It is argued by those who favor the new department that it would work pretty much as a harmless conduit of federal funds and coordinator of federal programs, all the while respecting the primacy of the states and localities in school affairs, and that it would do all this much more effieciently than is done under the present slovenly dispensation. Consulting ancient and modern bureaucratic precedent and looking around us at the evidence of our senses, we discover no reason at all to believe this is how things will turn out. They never do. Look at the Labor Department. Look at Commerce. A Department of Education, if such unfortunately is enacted into law, will become a gigantic single-minded lobbying outfit. It will be the NEA writ large.

Anyone who observed last year's congressional proceedings on this subject -- the hearings, committee debates and so forth -- should understand that what we really have here is a fight over turf: who gets which hunk of jurisdiction over whom an what and how much moeny. Evidently the administration, in coming back with its Education Department legislation in this Congress, has carved up the turf in a new and politically more persuasive way, so that the proposal is likely to have a smoother time this year. We hope it does not.The purpose of the federal government -- as we keep harping when this proposal comes up -- should be to fit federal education programs into a sustem of priorities and values larger than the education industry's perspective permits it to see, not to break off those programs into a client-and constituent-run principality of its own.

The best thing that could happen to President Carter's proposal for a department of education, from his point of view and everyone else's, would be for Congress to bury it.