President Clinton recently threatened to veto a House-passed education bill on teacher quality. He should reconsider his threat. While the bill clearly needs significant improvements, it represents a timely end to more than 30 years of federal failure to demand that every child, rich or poor, have a fully qualified teacher.

Virtually every member of the House of Representatives voted July 20 to require that all states, as a condition of receiving billions in federal education funding, set a goal of having a fully qualified teaching force by 2004 and be held accountable for closing achievement gaps between rich and poor students.

The need to address the issue is more urgent than ever. Record student enrollments, teacher retirements and pressures to reduce class size are creating an unprecedented demand for qualified teachers. In fact, the Department of Education estimates that schools will need to hire more than 2 million new teachers over the next decade.

This new legislation would focus on helping schools with the increasingly difficult task of recruiting, training and keeping qualified teachers in our nation's schools so that all students have the opportunity to meet high academic standards.

Since 1965 the federal government has spent more than $120 billion on the Title I program, the lion's share of the federal investment in elementary and secondary education. In that time, our nation's leaders have pledged to give American students a world-class education. But no president or Congress has ever taken certain steps necessary to achieve that goal.

In the past, we said teachers should be qualified, but we never demanded it, and we never defined it. Now, for the first time, we would say that simply having a degree from a school of education or being state or locally "certified" is not sufficient. Teachers must prove that they know the subject they are teaching, either by passing a competency test or by holding a college degree in that subject.

In the past, we also said we wanted to close the achievement gap between rich and poor, and between minority and non-minority students -- Title I's primary goal. But all we did was measure the failure to do so. Now, for the first time, we would say that states will hold schools accountable for closing the gap between those students.

As you might expect, however, a political fight threatens this consensus. Last year, the president successfully demanded that Congress approve $1.2 billion as a down payment on his goal of adding 100,000 new teachers in an effort to reduce class sizes. The president has urged that these 100,000 teachers be well-qualified. But his program is being implemented without any real standards for teacher quality. Individuals with no training and no knowledge of the subjects they teach are eligible to become new teachers.

Thus, his program is left open to the valid criticism that reducing class size alone is unlikely to boost achievement, especially if it means pairing an even greater number of poor and minority children with underqualified teachers, as it has in my home state of California.

Teacher quality is one of the greatest concerns of American parents. And the evidence supports them. Teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement. And the poorest schools have an especially hard time attracting and retaining qualified teachers.

In response to this concern, House Democrats introduced legislation that continued the president's class size program but also set clearer guidelines for teacher quality and held states accountable for closing student achievement gaps. It nearly passed. The Republicans passed an alternative bill, the Teacher Training Empowerment Act, which 23 Democratic colleagues and I supported. The Republicans adopted the accountability and quality standards of the Democratic proposal, but they took the added step of merging President Clinton's class size reduction initiative with other teacher training and school reform activities.

The president and congressional Democrats want to fulfill their pledge of hiring 100,000 new teachers. The Republicans, still smarting from Clinton's 11th-hour hour victory last fall, want to continue the program but steal the president's thunder by repackaging it as a Republican initiative that puts equal emphasis on class size and teacher quality.

If we could put politics aside, we could take the extraordinary and unprecedented step of having smaller classes with fully qualified teachers. Here's how:

The Republicans should listen to the president and others who have sought changes in their bill to maintain a separate class size reduction program and better target the funding formula to poor districts. And the administration should accept improvements made by both parties in the House that would set clearer guidelines for teacher quality and provide for more accountability tied to student learning.

For 30 years the federal government has been the enabler of unqualified teachers and unaccountable school systems, especially with regard to our most at-risk students. Our children will not be first in math, science or any other subject if we do not guarantee them fully qualified teachers and hold schools accountable for providing them with a first-class education.

The writer is a Democratic representative from California and a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee.