THE MAIN forms of federal aid to elementary and secondary education are due to be reauthorized in this Congress. Republicans are trying to use the occasion to shift more control of the programs from the federal to the state and local levels. The familiar debate has less to do with education than with federal government. Critics emphasize, and exaggerate, the burdens and dangers of federal regulation of the schools, while defenders overstate the likely gains. The schools become a backdrop for the fight over the federal role in national life in general.

There is one respect, however, in which this mostly stale debate does have serious educational ramifications. Most federal aid to education is supposed to be concentrated on the poor, and under current law, state and local officials are supposed to be held accountable for the use of the money to improve the academic performance of disadvantaged students from lower-income homes. Any easing of federal regulation, whatever other effects it may have, bears the burden of proof that it will not result in a shift of resources away from lower-income children. The current Republican proposal fails to meet that test. The main proposal creates too great a risk for no good reason, and the president is right to threaten a veto if it is sent to him in its present form.

The federal government pays only about 7 percent of the cost of elementary and secondary education, and the regulations governing the use of the federal aid already are looser than much of the surrounding rhetoric would suggest. The whole debate is thereby overblown. It is fanciful to suggest, as the one side sometimes does, that the feds are threatening to take over the schools. It is equally wishful to imply, as the other side tends to do, that the feds have leverage enough to influence state and local educational policy except on the margin. Elementary and secondary education is, like crime, essentially a state and local issue on which the national politicians are fated mainly to posture.

Example: The House two weeks ago passed a bill having to do with teachers, the first installment of the broader legislation the Republicans hope to enact. There has long been a federal teacher training program. A couple of years ago, the president added a program to help recruit more teachers to reduce class size, particularly in the lower grades. The Republicans proposed to combine the two and let localities decide how to split the money between retraining older teachers and hiring new ones. The president threatens to veto the result, because his hiring program would be blurred, though it would not quite disappear. Here's a fight, partly over the political ownership of a program, partly over a modest loss of focus in return for a gain in flexibility. It is less momentous than either side suggests.

The important fight will come later in the year over a proposal to let states merge all the programs, including the main one for the poor, if they wish. They could spend the money largely as they liked for five years, in return for a promise to improve performance. For at least the five years, some of the money now saved for the poor could be spent elsewhere. The accountability provisions in current law -- the pressure on school districts, principals and teachers to produce gains in achievement -- would likewise be weakened in some respects, though strengthened in others.

Here it seems to us the risk of loss of focus is greater than any likely gain, particularly given the history of state and local officials in trying to dilute aid to the poor by converting it to general aid. It's possible to increase state and local discretion without easing the federal insistence that the money be used on behalf of the poor. That's what the legislation ought to shoot for.