If you ask average voters--they run the country, remember?--you'll find one of the handful of public issues they truly care about is education. Nobody, even voucher advocates, claims government should get out of the business of helping students learn. And everybody thinks government could do better than it's doing now.

At a moment when Congress is in justifiable disrepute because it can't even pass a basic budget, you'd think politicians would be looking for some achievement to rescue their reputations. If not education, what?

But Washington is gridlocked on education too. Why? "The quick take on the education debate," says Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), "is that Republicans are supporting alternatives to the system, namely vouchers, and that Democrats are ready to support the status quo with more money." The problem, says Kerry, is that Democrats are right when they say the system needs more money, and Republicans are right to demand more accountability.

Those are not contradictory goals. But as Kerry likes to say, "we are stuck in ideological cement of our own mixing." So he's teamed with Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) to push Congress to break free and seek both objectives at once.

The idea, says Smith, is to give states "maximum money, maximum flexibility, but with accountability." The federal government would spend an additional $25 billion over the next five years to push for educational reforms. Both Kerry and Smith would like to spend more--Kerry favors $100 billion over a decade--but they're trying to be realistic. In exchange for the money, they'd demand rigorous evaluation of schools and require those that fail in their mission to students to be shaken up and reorganized.

Kerry is careful to say that the reorganizing, including the firing of failed principals and administrators, would be done at the state and local level, not by federal interlopers. "The federal government would be there only as an adviser/partner," says Kerry. But neither Kerry nor Smith shies away from the imperative of using federal money--and the threat to withdraw it--as a prod to reform, and both insist that extra federal money shouldn't be used to subsidize failure.

Their ideas bear some similarities to proposals being pushed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican front-runner, but with a big difference: Bush would take money away from failing schools to finance voucher programs. Kerry and Smith avoid vouchers--"our approach doesn't jump on the hot buttons of either side," says Smith. But they would push for more charter schools, new and often experimental schools within the public system.

Bush made headlines this week when he said his party too often "confused the need for limited government with a disdain for government itself." He might back up his critique of dogmatism by embracing what Kerry and Smith are trying to do.

They are pushing other innovative ideas. Private and religious schools enjoy success in part because of their ability to expel disruptive students. Most teachers will tell you an orderly classroom is a prerequisite to all other good things. But the public schools have an obligation to teach everyone--they cannot expel easily.

Kerry and Smith would promote discipline codes and "alternative placements" to give disruptive students a second chance in settings where, as Kerry puts it, they'd have proper "supervision, remediation of behavior and maintenance of academic progress." Troubled kids do have a right to learn, but they don't have a right to keep other kids from learning.

Kerry is also pushing for a Teachers Corps to encourage young people to give a few years--and perhaps eventually a lifetime--to teaching. He and Smith also favor alternative certification to expand the pool of good teachers. They want the schools to engage in new partnerships with business. Private companies can almost always outbid school salaries in the competition for talent. To meet the grave national shortage of science and math teachers, Kerry says, business will have to help.

Now the hard question: What gives these two senators the idea they have a chance to break educational gridlock in a Congress where even the smallest issues get mired in bitter partisanship?

Smith is relying on that most reliable of forces, naked political self-interest. "Because education polls so high, and the rap against this Congress is that it has done nothing, there will be tremendous pressure to go home with an educational pelt on our political belts," he says. But can self-interest, rightly understood, prevail in this Congress? Unlikely. But not impossible.