How, exactly, will federal funds be used to improve schools?

You can count on it: For the next 18 months, every candidate for president of the United States will talk with fervor and urgency about the need to fix our schools. Aren't we facing the largest generation of students in our nation's history?

You can also count on this: The debates in Congress over how we spend federal tax money will bear almost no connection to the education chatter of presidential politics. Instead, you'll hear much arcane murmuring about "budget caps" and a lot of braying about gridlock and the difficulties of governing.

Not all of this is Congress's fault. At the moment, American voters are as closely divided in their partisan sympathies as they've ever been. In the past two elections for the House of Representatives, the popular vote split almost exactly 50-50.

The Republican majority in the House is so small that defections by even a half-dozen members -- left, right, center or sideways -- can bring the place to a screeching halt.

And the presidential candidates may have reason to avoid the hardest questions. It's not easy to explain, for example, how we can attract the best young teachers at a time when private sector pay for well-educated workers, especially in fields involving science and math, vastly outstrips what taxpayers are willing to offer Johnny's calculus teacher.

How to bring the big issues at stake in the 2000 elections into line with the workaday world of congressional politics is the great challenge for the next year and a half. Reconnecting governing and campaigning is key not only to reducing voter cynicism but also to making the country governable again. That should become Congress's priority when it returns next week.

On the budget, it's clear that the Republican majorities in the House and Senate are too small for bold moves. Conservatives who want to slash government programs and taxes don't have the votes -- and probably don't have the public support they need either. Moderate and progressive Republicans have been outspoken in insisting they won't support cuts that hurt their own districts or that harm their preferred social programs.

Instead of pretending they can do the impossible, the conservatives should put together their ideal budget as an alternative to President Clinton's, let voters see their priorities and accept that in this Congress they're likely to lose when it comes to a vote. Such a budget could serve as a marker: This is what the country would get if it elected a larger Republican majority.

For conservatives, there is no point in making the life of House Speaker Dennis Hastert any more miserable than it already is. The only budget that can pass now is a moderate budget, with modest spending increases and, at best, modest tax cuts.

In the meantime, it's time to change the budget rules and get rid of those arcane "caps" that were enacted when large deficits were the problem. Loosening the budget rules doesn't mean ending fiscal discipline any more than the rules now guarantee it. Congress piled billions of extra spending on Clinton's emergency request for the Kosovo war. Congress can bust the budget whatever the rules are.

Opening up the budget would allow for the debate voters need to hear on Social Security and Medicare, on tax cuts and -- yes -- on schools.

The presidential candidates could put their own priorities on the line and explain the costs of their good words. Last month, Vice President Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush gave commencement addresses on successive days that might have run under the same headline: An Ode to the Importance of Good Teaching. Bush told future teachers in his audience at Southern Methodist University's graduation, "You have chosen a profession that will never make you rich -- but the fruits of your labor stand to make us all, as a nation, rich." Very nice. But then what?

Imagine if the voters -- and, yes, we journalists -- kept pressing the candidates for more specifics on what they insist is the biggest issue facing the country.

The first question should go to presidential candidates who talk about education as a national problem but then assert that the federal government has no role in fixing the schools. If they believe that, why are they wasting their time, and ours, campaigning on a problem they intend to do little about?

The late historian Christopher Lasch once said that democracy may not be the most efficient form of government, but it ought to be the most educational. On the education issue, the candidates owe us an education -- and we should give them one if they don't deliver.