A great many public opinion polls cross this desk, and most of them go straight into the wastebasket. The other day, I saw one that made me sit at attention.
The California Poll directed by Mervin Field reported that, ''By a margin of 57 to 38 percent, California voters would rather see $700 million in state surplus funds given to the public schools than rebated to state income-tax payers.''
In Ronald Reagan's home state, whose 1978 vote for the Proposition 13 property-tax rollback triggered the nationwide ''tax revolt,'' even the Republicans said by a slight margin that they'd rather see the money go to the schools than come back into their own pockets.
This is not an isolated example. Other signs point to an increased readiness to forgo individual enrichment in order to pay for such highly valued social goals as improved education.
In a speech prepared for delivery to the National Press Club yesterday, Secretary of Education William Bennett admonished his fellow Republicans to understand that ''Americans are not money-fixated, bankbook-obsessed people. . . . In the coming campaign, Republicans must do better than look at education through the green eyeshades of the accountant.''
Education, he said, is primarily a state and local responsibility, ''but Republicans must also recognize that there is a proper, though limited, federal role in improving American education.''
Yesterday, too, the Committee for Economic Development, a blue-ribbon business group, issued a report advocating ''investment strategies for the educationally disadvantaged.'' It outlined an ambitious agenda of federal, state, local and private initiatives involving the ''earliest possible intervention'' to rescue ''at-risk families'' from lifelong dependency.
Maybe these simultaneous developments are just a coincidence. But they look more like powerful evidence that the psychological climate that produced the Reagan decade of antitax, antigovernment politics is coming to an end.
The shift is understandable. The Reagan era was shaped by the scarring 1970s experience with runaway inflation. It frightened people enough that they closed their wallets to the tax collectors and their minds tothe nation's unmet needs. But now, after almost five years of noninflationary economic growth, people are opening their eyes to this society's agenda and relaxing their grip on their purses.
Bennett is a convenient example of the shift. As a novice Cabinet member in 1985, he made truly wretched speeches attempting to justify the Office of Management and Budget-dictated cuts in vital education programs. Now, if reports are correct, he is preparing to fight for the biggest increase in the education budget in all the Reagan years.
The shift of public attitudes measured by these developments does not mean we are returning to the openhanded government-spending practices that prevailed under both Democratic and Republican presidents in the pre-Reagan years.
There is, as Bennett said in his press club speech, a new emphasis on accountability. ''The education reform movement,'' he said, ''first and foremost is about improved results. The American people want their schools to do a better job for all of our children -- for the poor, the affluent and the middle class.'' They are prepared to invest in education and reward educators who do a good job, but they will insist on accountability.
That same view pervades public attitudes toward other areas of government, including defense: added spending has to produce better performance -- or else.
The point that jumps out of both Bennett's text and the CED report is that in education we have learned what works and now only need to do it in more places. There are working models of effective programs, serving all kinds of students from inner cities to affluent suburbs. Conservative politicians such as Bennett and hardheaded businessmen such as Owen B. Butler, the retired chairman of Procter & Gamble and head of the CED study, have seen them for themselves and can testify that they exist.
Bennett's proudest achievement is the publication, ''Schools That Work,'' a guide to functioning examples of efficient education delivery systems. The CED report is studded with other examples, in cities from Albuquerque to Boston, even providing names and addresses of the people to contact at each pilot project.
Even though the public is willing to pay the cost of building on these working models, there are obstacles to overcome. Bennett came down hard on the National Education Association, as if the largest teachers' union were the main barrier to reform. But there are other entrenched bureaucracies in the education profession that are resistant to change.
Change is coming. The public mood has shifted. California once again is a bellwether. And public education -- probably America's greatest invention and most powerful competitive advantage -- is once again on the cutting edge of the change.