TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. -- It was early on Sunday morning after a long banquet and fireworks display had kept them up all night. But here they were around the table, waiting to recite. This was show-and-tell time, not for schoolboys but for governors, talking about their efforts at education reform.
A year ago, when they held their annual meeting at Hilton Head, S.C., the governors adopted a report on schools called ''A Time for Results.'' They committed themselves then to evaluate their progress every year for the next five years. This was the first report.
One governor, from an economically depressed state, told how he had worked with the teachers' union, superintendents and school boards to persuade the state legislature to add $92 million to the education budget, boosting starting salaries 24 percent and allowing performance-based pay incentives.
The next, a lame duck nearing the end of his second term in a conservative state, recounted how he had put ''all my political capital'' into a legislative fight that extended into a special session for higher taxes to finance school improvements.
The third told how he had called in the presidents of the state-supported colleges and universities and challenged them to define their goals and then find ways to evaluate how well students were meeting them -- not with a single, oversimplified measure, but with techniques that take account of the lifetime challenges facing those students.
And the fourth, the governor of a low-wage industrial state with a high dropout rate, summarized the ''excellence in education'' program on which he focused his 1987 legislative package. This included a dropout-prevention program with monitoring and special services for vulnerable students from kindergarten level onward.
The stories were interesting. But what made them striking was that all four governors were Republicans: Terry E. Branstad of Iowa, Robert D. Orr of Indiana, John Ashcroft of Missouri and Edward DiPrete of Rhode Island.
Education has rarely been a partisan issue in American politics, but with the passage of major federal aid-to-education bills in Lyndon Johnson's years and Ronald Reagan's recurrent efforts to slash federal aid to schools and students, Democrats have come to think of it as their franchise. The fact that leading teachers' organizations -- the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers -- regularly endorse Democratic candidates and a high percentage of the academics vote Democratic has deepened that impression.
To be sure, Democratic governors have played a leading role in the recent wave of education reforms, particularly in the southern states with men such as Jim Hunt of North Carolina, William Winter of Mississippi, Mark White of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas, Dick Riley of South Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida. But at the state level, Republicans have matched them step for step.
The prime mover in the ''Time for Results'' project was former Republican governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who, as chairman of the National Governors Association, made the crucial decision to devote all of last year's meeting to education reform. That was also Alexander's final year as governor, but he turned over the follow-up responsibility to a man equally dedicated to better schools, fellow Republican Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey.
Kean is a results-oriented executive who has built an enviable record and diverse constituency support in six years as governor. He thinks the states need to continue their healthy competition in improving schools, but that the governors also ''must help renew a historic partnership with the federal government'' to bolster quality and availability of education.
''The federal government has to get back into education,'' Kean says. ''The states are taking all the initiative and responsibility now, and the federal government isn't even filling in the gaps. It isn't even doing the education planning for the nation.''
Kean urged his fellow governors to make education an issue for the 1988 presidential candidates -- and not to be satisfied with cliche's.
''Governors should ask candidates to express the national education agenda in plain terms,'' he said. ''What would they do about the education of urban and rural poor in this nation? What would they do at the federal level to link education aid to performance? What would they do to connect education to welfare reform and employment policy? To renew the skills of our work force? To encourage Americans to invest in their own higher education? What would these candidates do to strengthen the research enterprise?''
Good questions, put by a man who, with his colleagues, has earned the right to ask them. With Republicans joining Democrats in state after state, and putting pressure on their national candidates to commit themselves to the effort, the battle for education -- the true struggle for America's future -- looks more encouraging than ever.