"ON ELECTION NIGHT, one of the first things I would do is send a telegram to Secretary of Education Bennett and tell him to start cleaning out his desk," said Albert Gore at the "Education '88" debate sponsored by former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt Friday morning at Chapel Hill. The assertion had all the relevance of Richard Nixon's similar pledge that, if elected, he would sack Attorney General Ramsey Clark. Big deal -- big surprise. Secretary of Education William Bennett, listening in the audience to Mr. Gore and the other six Democratic candidates (the Republicans spoke in the afternoon), said: "It was obvious that none of them are really qualified to be president."

A genuinely silly exchange: of course the Democrats would bounce Bill Bennett; of course Bill Bennett wouldn't back them. Does anyone have anything interesting to say about educa-tion?

The answer is a qualified yes. Mr. Hunt was one of the several southern governors who pioneered education reforms that included tougher testing and more generous spending. The presidential candidates of both parties, after you get past the chaff, seem to be talking about something like that themselves.

The irony here is that candidates for federal office are talking about an issue on which the federal government has been lagging behind the states. One reason is simply that most of the money for education is raised and spent in the states. But the other reason is that the federal government under both parties has missed too many chances to stimulate useful innovation. The Carter administration spent its political capital on the worthless proposal to create a separate federal Department of Education, a sop to the National Education Association, which only got in the states' way. The Reagan administration has spent much of its political capital trying to cut aid to education and college student loan programs, which has hurt students and distracted attention from the sometimes useful things Mr. Bennett has been saying.

Even political candidates can do better than this. We have a couple of suggestions for both parties. The Republicans should give up, as Mr. Bennett seems to have, the notion that you can improve education without spending any more money. Some improvements may be cheap or even free. But ultimately you're going to have to spend. The Democrats should get off the cliche'd excoriation of Mr. Reagan for spending money on defense systems that should be spent on education: none of them is going to zero out the defense budget, and the case for education stands on its own. They should spend more time showing they've learned the lesson Democrats at the state level like Jim Hunt have taught: that our schools need to teach the basics, to encourage excellence, to set standards, to really teach.

And candidates of both parties should go ahead, as some especially among the Republicans have, to suggest their own special innovations. Not all will be practical or sensible. But this is a benign form of political competition. We should all remember that ideas can turn out to work better as well as worse than anyone expects. When the G.I. Bill of Rights was being debated during World War II, critics argued that most veterans wouldn't be interested in going to college or wouldn't be able to do the work. They couldn't have been more wrong: the veterans thronged the colleges and performed brilliantly, then and ever since. The G.I. Bill turned out to be some of the smartest money the federal government ever spent. The ideas behind it -- generous benefits, insistence on achievement -- are ideas on which candidates of both parties are converging. Let them fight to see if anyone can come up with an idea that turns out half as well