THE REAGAN administration has always been ambivalent about the federal role in education. One school of thought has been that education is the local function in which the federal government belongs the least. The competing theme has been that the administration should also exercise a degree of leadership in education. The idea has never been to increase federal funding -- quite the contrary -- but to use the government as a vantage point from which to challenge and hold out standards for the schools. Mr. Reagan's forceful second education secretary, William Bennett, has made a career of this; the president himself has found it a congenial approach on occasion. Among many other things, both have called upon the schools to help transmit and revive what they regard as the traditional American values. Suddenly it's the other side that wants the government to keep outside the classroom.

Mr. Bennett is plainly right in one respect; too often the schools have played it safe by making pablum of the past. But there is a problem in steering between blandness and zeal. An example now crops up in Mr. Bennett's own department. For many years the government has kept a catalog of educational programs that have been found to work. The list is meant to help school districts seeking ways to improve. The programs have been judged according to effectiveness, meaning simply whether there is evidence that they accomplish what they say they do.

Earlier this year the department proposed the addition of a second test -- not just whether a program was effective, but whether it was "appropriate for dissemination," defined in part as "whether the content . . . would be generally acceptable" to school authorities and parents. Why such people were deemed unable to make such judgments for themselves is not entirely clear. The proposed regulation looked and quacked like an effort to begin doing thevery thing that Mr. Reagan came to officerightly saying the national government shouldnot do. Various members of Congress complained; the department says it is rewriting the proposal. A better idea might be to drop it altogethe