Washington never just embraces issues; when it picks them up, it crushes them. That's what is happening now to the "education issue."

When I wrote a column on May 15 saying that I had a hunch that Secretary of Education Ted Bell was "riding one of the big issues of 1984 politics," little did I imagine that it was going to become the early-summer spectacular that it is.

In one 24-hour span last week, President Reagan jetted from Washington to Tennessee to New Mexico to spread word of his new-found passion for the quality of our public schools. Meantime, four of the six Democratic presidential hopefuls were sounding off on the same subject back in Washington.

This kind of sudden exploitation of an issue that is, truth to tell, not exactly brand-new, has an odor of expediency. And those who sniff something fishy are right.

On the Democratic side, one of the stakes is the support of the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, and a bountiful source of campaign workers and national convention delegates. Former vice president Walter F. Mondale is supposed to have the NEA endorsement nailed down, but his rivals are conceding nothing.

Last week, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, who had been considered a rank outsider for the NEA honors despite his strong credentials as a pro-education governor more than 20 years ago, suddenly raised the bidding in the endorsement game.

Just a month ago, Hollings had been out on the Senate floor and around the country calling for a freeze on federal spending. Last week he found it in his heart to promise every teacher a $5,000-a-year federal pay raise--at the cost of $14 billion.

That immediately overshadowed Mondale's modest $11 billion annual "program for excellence," which he had unveiled, with suitable fanfares, at Harvard a month earlier. Whether $14 billion represents the top bid or just a temporary Democratic plateau remains uncertain. But when it comes to hypocrisy on the education issue, none of the Democrats holds a candle to Ronald Reagan.

Until his pollsters and political advisers informed him that, guess what, Mr. President, the American people care about the kind of schools their kids attend, Reagan's contribution to the education debate had been nil.

Well, not nil; but, kindly put, tangential. He remembered intermittently that he had promised to abolish the Department of Education, and trotted out that pledge for conservative audiences. He was strong for prayer in the schools. And he would add to the deficits by granting tax credits for private-school tuition. For some reason, his advisers said, that struck people as less than an adequate response to what his own commission on education had called a crisis.

So the president added to his repertory by borrowing an idea which Ted Bell had been peddling, without success, until then: merit pay for teachers. He took it up with the passion of a convert and described it, with varying degrees of precision, as a formula that would ensure the improvement in quality that is the keynote of all the recent education reports.

Unlike the Republican governor of Tennessee and the Democratic legislators in California, who have been struggling to pass merit pay plans, Reagan did not put his money where his mouth was. Where they proposed tax hikes to finance better teacher pay, Reagan said the money question was not his dish.

He took the same line that he has taken with governors, mayors and legislators on almost every other domestic issue that has arisen. We have cut taxes in Washington, Reagan said, so you fellows can raise them to pay for the programs you want.

That answer is equivalent to the man boarding a jet saying to the stranded standby passenger: feel free to jump off the roof. The federal tax cuts have contributed to massive deficits that keep interest rates high and economic recovery slow. In that situation, states have had to raise taxes just to meet their existing program obligations, and few can afford service improvements.

Beyond all the posturing and the politics on both sides of the fence, there is a real issue facing us: Where do we put our bets on our future as a country?

Do we assume, as Reagan does, that the last dollar of a rapidly increasing military budget is the surest guarantee of security? Or do we believe, as every one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls argues, that improvement of education has at least an equal claim on limited resources?

For me, the answer is that education has that kind of claim. And I am listening for the Democrat who has the best strategy to make it possible for states to put that kind of money into education. And that's not necessarily the candidate who promises the largest federal handout.