When Woodrow Wilson High School principal John Durso walked off the job to protest the readmission of a juvenile charged with rape (charges that were later dropped), D.C. school authorities were perturbed. But as a teacher who has seen the bureaucracy chip away at the authority of school principals for more than 20 years, I could only applaud Durso's courage.

I have no doubt that the steady loss of power on the part of principals to run their schools has contributed to the declining public esteem for the institution. The further we depart from the American ideal of community schools run by principals who can -- and must -- respond quickly to the needs of parents, students and teachers, the more public support the schools will lose.

Consider the impotence of the American public school principal in the fundamental area of discipline. Durso's difficulties in enforcing discipline are anything but unique. In Alexandria, where I teach, a principal does not have the power to expel a student. Approval from school headquarters -- the "central office" -- is necessary. I've heard of principals and assistant principals recommending a student's expulsion on the basis of thorough documentation only to have that student ordered back in school.

Not to put too fine a point on it, some of these students are dangerous. One Alexandria high school student is currently in jail without bond pending trial on charges relating to an aggravated assault on a teacher while she was teaching class. (The doctor said that if the blows had been two inches to the right or left on her skull, she might not have survived.)

When officials at the central office are asked why dangerous students are permitted in school even after requests for expulsion, they often blame the school board or the courts.

Or take the matter of the school curriculum. The word "principal" was derived from the British phrase "principal teacher." But principals have given up their authority in this area. The establishing of curriculums -- how many science, English and math courses, and what is taught in those courses -- is in the hands of "curriculum coordinators" and supervisors in the central office. Lately, even their power has been appropriated by the state legislature, which now mandates curriculums even down to programs for gifted kindergarten children.

Our school principal cannot even get the air-conditioning system turned on without permission from the central office. It controls the switch. On some days, we and our 2,400 students have sweltered in rooms with sealed windows while school officials with fancy titles sit in air-conditioned offices "downtown."

How did we get so far from independent community schools with responsive, independent principals?

The establishment of new federal programs for the economically disadvantaged, the non-English-speaking and the handicapped created new layers of bureaucracy to manage the money and monitor the programs. Desegregation, and battles with teachers unions, also imposed new administrative burdens and tended to shift power out of the schools.

Every year, the Virginia Department of Education sends our school headquarters a 49-page book titled "Calendar Reports." It lists more than 300 reports that have to be made to Richmond. Included are such items as "Application for Aid to Pay Instructional Costs for the School Community Cannery" and "Reports of Assaults on School Personnel."

sk But to many of us in the schools, the growth of the central bureaucracy seems to have a life of its own. In 1964, 40 people in the central office operated a school system for 17,000 students on an administrative budget of $320,352. By 1984, there were 105 people in the central office drawing wages and salaries of $2.5 million. Yet school enrollment had declined by 6,700 to 10,300.

Obviously a bureaucracy of this size is a far cry from the decentralized system in which power resided in individual schools.

The real reason John Durso is a hero to many of his students and their parents -- and to me -- is that he put the best interests of his students first and his job second. That, I think, is what Americans want their children's school principals to do.

Durso could have finessed the whole thing. He could have passed the buck "downtown," as so many principals would have done. Instead, he gave the students of Woodrow Wilson what probably will be their most valuable lesson of the year.

It's a lesson that public schools will have to learn if they expect to regain the public's respect.