LIBERAL GUILT is becoming a dangerous factor in press coverage of the Dictrict of Columbia government. For years the level of ineptitude and scandal in Walter Washington's administration were not exposed because he was black. Now Marion Barry, another black, has received worshipful coverage in both The Star and The Post for a trip to Africa that he took while the District's budget was pending in Congress. Yet writers for both papers condemned Jimmy Carter for taking a trip down the Mississippi while important issues were pending in Washington, Marion Barry could be a better mayor than Walter Washington. But he won't be if he too escapes the bracing tonic of a critical press.

When I attended Columbia in the late Forties, the low standards of its Teachers College were already the scandal of the university. Emphasizing method in the form of "education" courses, it so ignored substance that its graduates, while they may have known how to teach, seldom knew what to teach. I am reminded of this by an excellent article by Gene Lyons in the September issue of Texas Monthly. Among other things, the article mentions that 535 first-year Dallas public school teachers were outscored on a test by a group of seniors from a Jesuit secondary school in Dallas, and that of the applicants to teach in the Houston public schools, one-half scored less in mathematics achievement tests than the average high school junior. Almost a third were similarly defective in English.

Graduates of Texas teachers colleges are issued. Texas teaching certificates as long as they have completed the specific "education" courses required. As for substance, Lyons found that at one of the "better" Texas teachers colleges, the committee in charge of making sure future teachers were adequately grounded in the substance of the subjects there were to teach had never met.

The education courses are so intellectually numbing that few people of any wit can endure them. This means, quite simply, that we have a lot of public school teachers who are either stupid or poorly trained or both. That, not racial problems, not student violence, is the central problem of our public schools today.

The shocking fact is that this schandal has been going on for so long. I have personal knowledge of its existence from my college days to my years as a parent dealing with the District of Columbia public schools in the Sixties and Seventies.

Why does the scandal continue? Because of the power of the education industry, the teachers' colleges and the teachers' unions (the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers).

The teachers should scare you. The reason they should scare you is that they show what white-collar unions can do to resist reform of any kind. Suppose we as a nation finally decide to do something about the inept and unaccountable bureaucracies that constitute most of our federal, state and local governments. They will resist reform with even more ferocity than the teachers, for they have more votes, a lot more votes.

The white-collar problem is not confined to the government. During the last dozen years or so white-collar employment has risen at a rate three times greater than blue-collar employment throughout the economy.

The thing that unites all these bureaucrats, from clerk to president, is an expectation of higher pay without regard to performance. Mark Gree, in a forthcoming issue of New York magazine, shows that in 15 major companies the salaries of the top executives rose in a year that the profits of their respective companies declined.

Blue-collar workers are every day assailed with righteous injunctions to be more productive. I want to incite them to turn on their oppressors. Let's have workers from the United Auto Workers and the United Mine Workers assess the productivity of all the bureaucrats, including those in the companies and those at the union headquarters.

In 1961 I witnessed a crash of a United Airlines DC8 in Denver in which a lot of people were killed, not by the impact but by their inability to get out of the plane before they were overcome by smoke. Now I read that United recently twice failed tests to evacuate a DC8 in the time required by the Federal Aviation Administration. According to Patricia R. Miller, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, the FAA permits the airlines to test evacuation procedures using as make-believe passengers flight personnel who rehearse for days -- instead of using a mixture of old people, children and everyone in between, who make up the usual passenger load. So if United couldn't pass that test until its third try, you might want to try another airline.

My latest cause? Save the helium. The National Research Council estimates that 85 percent of America's enormous helium reserve will disappear within 30 years. The government stopped stockpiling helium a few years ago and it is now being vented or wasted at an alarming rate by the producers of natural gas. Why should you care about helium? Because it could enable us to have a great fleet of zeppelins.

You will probably rank this enthusiasm somewhere between my advocacy of jaywalking and my campaign to put banks on top floors. Almost everyone thinks the zeppelin died with the Hindenburg. But the reason the Hindenburg burned was that it did not have helium. And the reason for almost all the other crashes of lighter-than-air ships during the 1920s and 1930s was the primitive state of weather forecasting that led them into violent storms. Lighter-than-air flight can be more energy-efficient than any other form of transport. With helium, and with today's weather forecasting, we could combine that energy efficiency with safety.

This summer an NBC News-Associated Press poll showed 65 percent of the people in favor of the SALT II agreement. Another poll taken in the same month, by Elmo Roper, showed only 31 percent for the treaty. The NBC-AP poll asked only, "Do you favor or oppose an agreement between the United States and Russia that would limit nuclear weapons?" Roper, on the other hand, spelled out some specifics of the agreement. Finally, Americans for SALT, a group lobbying for approval of the treaty, is running ads saying, "Seven out of 10 Americans approve the SALT II Treaty." This claim is based on an ABC News poll that asked only if the respondents would favor a treaty between the United States and Russia " to limit their ability to fight a nuclear war." Andrew Alexander has explained the reasons for the difference. National polls cost a lot of money, and the fewer questions asked the lower the cost. Networks don't want long, complicated stories anyway. So a desire for brevity combines with a desire to hold down costs to produce public opinion that is not public opinion at all. And whether you support SALT II, as I do, or not, that seems outrageous.