Playing the proverbial skunk-at-the-tea-party role, Vermont's Republican Gov. Richard A. Snelling chose the recent meeting here of the Education Commission of the States to suggest that U.S. schools and colleges are performing their role so poorly that President Carter should call a constitutional convention on education in America.

Snelling quickly modified his proposal to say such a convention wouldn't be "for the purpose of tampering with the United States Constitution, but more on the model of the Atlantic Charter for the United Nations."

The convention's role, said Snelling, would be to challenge long-accepted ideas about education, to draw up an "educational Bill of Rights" that states and school districts might ratify as a "yardstick" to guide their future course.

Basic educational rights, ignored by many schools across the country in recent years, would be affirmed, Snelling proposed. One would be to ensure young people "the fundamental skills of communication, challenge and calculation." A second would be to provide them "with a sense of history and a social perspective of their own culture," thus correcting the alarming loss of historic consciousness and preparation for citizenship that's stemmed from dilution of basic history and civics instruction in recent years.

It comes as something of a shock that any U.S. governor could make a proposal as radical as Snelling's after 20 years in which national budgets for education have multiplied sevenford, two and a half times the rate of inflation, to $144 billion this year.

But the upward spiral in education costs has produced anything but the millenium Americans might have expected from massive injections of money. Rather, says Snelling, "the system is failing to such an enormous extent that those who are serious about education would want to cry."

The hard facts are that in schools from coast to coast, verbal and mathematic Scholastic Aptitude Test scores have fallen steadily since 1963 - almost without regard to whether the school system is poor or rich, center city, surburban or rural. Reputable surveys have shown that 12 of every 100 17-year-old high school students are functionally illiterate, that scarely 50 per cent know each state has two senators or that the President can't appoint members of Congress.

Colleges complain that entering students come unequipped to read or write properly, graduates say their educations don't equip them for real-world jobs and employers contend they have to educate the products of the schools all over again.

No one believes the schools' problems will be quickly or easily solved. But across the nation, the ferment for change is growing rapidly. And some common themes are emerging:

A call for a return to basics, to the three R's. A recent poll showed 83 per cent of the American people favor that course.

A demand for stricter school discipline.

A demand for "minimal competency" testing, so that students won't receive high school diplomas unless they've learned to read, write and compute at a minimal level. Twenty-six states have adopted some form of competency-testing program.

Pervasive resentment against an educational establisment that constantly seeks more funding but stead-fastly resists outside monitoring. Says Maine's Independent Gov. James Longley. "Society has defaulted and the experts have taken over. They resist input and challenge from the outside."

Sharp criticism of teachers' training that's heavy on "how to teach" and light on the basic subject matters the teachers will teach.

Resentment that teachers, while their average salaries have risen to middle-class status, have often become lazy, refusing to take work home, to stay after school to talk with students, to participate in extracurricular activities without extra pay. Unionization of teachers has created or aggravated this situation, critics complain.

"Progressive" educators and teacher unions take issue with most of these points and have their own set of scape-goats, ranging from a breakdown in the family structure and indifferent parents to the debilitating effects of excessive television watching.

There's doubt whether Snelling's constitutional convention could do more than set down generalized principles for educational reform. Despite some federal funding, education remains overwhelmingly a state and local responsibility.

But by reaching deep into citizen ranks, states, school districts and neighborhoods can provide powerful impetus for change and increased school accountability.

Kentucky this autumn held what amounted to its own constitutional convention on education, assembling hundreds of citizens from every corner of the state to debate and act on a 359 page reform document drawn up by 632 members of task forces that spent an entire year looking into every aspect of public education from kindergarten through graduate school.

Typical recommendations of the project, sparked by Democratic Gov. Julian Carroll: competency testing at four grade levels, with minimum standards for high school graduation; remedial help at regional service centers for lagging students; special programs for particularly gifted children; a strong emphasis on teaching history and civics; requiring that teachers teach (and thus be tested) for a year before certification; in-service teacher training centered on basic subject matters rather than teaching methodology.

The next step, if Kentucky's legislature approves, will be to require similar citizen-directed evaluation processes at the local level.

"People generally feel ignored by the school system," says Gov. Carroll. "But now we've drawn in so many citizens that they feel involved."

Kentucky is not alone: Virginia and Florida already have tough statewide and local accountability systems in place; Oregon, Georgia, Colorado and California are among other states encouraging localities to undertake the same process. Given the public's skepticism about present-day education, the accountability movement seems likely to spread rapidly across the nation.