EVERY FIVE YEARS Congress fights an exhausting partisan battle over the small slice of elementary and secondary school funding -- about 7 percent -- supplied by federal aid. This year has been no exception. The House committee reauthorizing Title I, the main source of compensatory aid for poor children, spent four days marking up the bill and passed only three of 47 proposed amendments.

The bill thus emerged free of a number of highly contested party-line issues: Democrats' insistence on targeting the money to certain things and Republicans' push for local control of the money without strings attached. But then the committee spoiled the impression of harmony with a party-line vote on a bill dubbed "Straight A's." This measure would allow states to make separate agreements with the feds on school performance, bypassing current federal rules on their use of the federal aid involved. In essence, it would replace Title I with an optional block grant.

Throughout the history of the aid programs, Democrats have argued for rules that steer the aid toward the poorest students and specific programs. With the current national interest in standards, they have added "accountability" in the sense of requiring and measuring improvement in student performance. Republicans have held out for local flexibility both in spending and setting standards.

The Republican presidential front-runner, George W. Bush, is running on a detailed education platform that ignores the history of polarization and borrows liberally from pet policies of both sides. He talks a lot about flexibility, but he has also imposed more and clearer testing in the elementary grades and backed some well-targeted increases in spending, such as for literacy and Head Start.

After years of tinkering, Title I and its competitors all contain elements of both flexibility and accountability. Opponents of "Straight A's" complain about the loss of focus on the disadvantaged but also about the lack of clearly defined standards for the "performance agreements." The president has made noises about vetoing "Straight A's," and the full House could still vote it down next week while approving Title I as it stands. It should. The compromises reflected in Title I's years of tinkering are a more accurate reflection of education's complicated, un-partisan reality.