THE FRONT-RUNNER in each party has now laid out his education views, and together these suggest that the old polarization of education politics is softening. On the Republican side, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas has abandoned his party's hostility to a federal role in education: He has called for the national government to increase its Title I grants for poor schools and to take on a bigger role in preschool education. Likewise, Mr. Bush has offered a voucher proposal that is carefully moderate. He supports federally financed vouchers only for pupils whose schools persistently fail to improve test scores to an acceptable standard.

On the Democratic side, the views of Vice President Al Gore grew clearer with a speech on Thursday. The resemblance to the Bush plan is more striking than the difference. Mr. Gore wants the federal government to spend $50 billion over 10 years on preschooling, distinguishing himself from Mr. Bush mainly in his willingness to attach a number to his ambition. Next, he proposes another $65 billion over 10 years for a package of school improvements that would be targeted at the poor--just as Mr. Bush's expanded Title I would be.

The vice president denounces the Bush voucher plan. But he supports other sorts of parental choice: His proposals include a tripling in the number of charter schools and efforts to subdivide big schools in order to increase competition within the public system. Admittedly, he does not rely solely on parental choice to stimulate reform; he seeks federal incentives for change also. But Mr. Bush seeks such incentives too.

The Bush incentives come through his expansion of Title I: He proposes to make bonus grants to poor schools that register the greatest improvements. Mr. Gore offers a more elaborate idea. He aims to encourage poor school districts to go into partnership with business groups and teachers' unions and to come up with plans to boost accountability. These would offer the best teachers extra pay and would make it easier to fire bad ones. To break union resistance to layoffs, Mr. Gore proposes to raise teacher salaries by $5,000 or $10,000 a year in poor areas that adopt such plans. Union leaders who blocked reform would thus risk the ire of teachers whose pay raises they had blocked.

Mr. Gore goes further than Mr. Bush in other respects. He wants federal bonuses for new teachers who switch to the profession in mid-career as well as federal scholarships for students studying to be teachers; in both cases, the money would be used to reward a commitment to teach in poor schools for a minimum of four years. Equally, Mr. Gore wants more money for school building and for after-school and summer-school classes.

In sum, the Bush and Gore plans differ mainly in emphasis: Mr. Bush stresses choice more than his rival, while Mr. Gore stresses federal resources. Given the large tax cut proposed by Mr. Bush, it is not surprising that he is cautious about expanding the education budget. Then again, even Mr. Gore may have difficulting paying for his program: He says it amounts to a tenth of the non-Social Security surplus, but that surplus is illusory. A carefree optimism about budget numbers is a final quality that unites both candidates.