THE D.C. COUNCIL'S legislative review of local public school governance could not have come at a better time. The historically bumptious and ineffective 11-member elected Board of Education was replaced with a caretaker Emergency Board of Trustees three years ago. The elected panel is slated to regain full control over the schools next June, but most council members think major structural and operational changes are needed first. They are right.

Besides constant infighting and pettiness, the elected board has done little -- especially when it comes to advancing academic achievement of District children -- either before or since the financial control board's 1996 takeover. Allowing the current school board to manage operations without changing the way it governs or clarifying its role and responsibilities would be a disservice to the system and the city.

To shake up the status quo, Kevin Chavous (D-Ward 7), chairman of the council's education committee, has written legislation to limit the board's authority over the schools, shrink the panel by two members, require ward representatives to win citywide support and eliminate the board's power to create public charter schools. Mr. Chavous would also have the control board delay returning full oversight authority to the elected panel until January 2001, when members elected under his new scheme would be sworn in.

Mr. Chavous deserves credit for trying to change the system. A smaller board is more in line with a majority of boards in the country. Defining the board's duties so it no longer runs the schools is a major step toward getting panel members out of micromanagement. We think, however, that the way board members are chosen also warrants close review.

The 30-year-old school board is no longer the symbol of District independence. That role now falls appropriately to the mayor, the 13-member council and the D.C. delegate. Today the city needs a school board to effectively guide and oversee the school system -- not serve as the same old noisy launch pad it has been for political aspirants.