WHEN THE CHILDREN of Washington's public schools ask exactly why they haven't seen their teachers in the classrooms for the last 2 1/2 weeks -- or what the fuss has really been about during all this time -- what is a beleaguered parent expected to tell them? Given the reckless and irrational pattern of what has so politely and inaccurately been labeled "bargaining," you have to strain to find a shred of sense anywhere in the sporadic negotiations.

This morning -- after the escalating, the posturing, the retrenching and the nastiness, not to mention the untold injury to a school system with troubles enough already -- we seem to be exactly where we started: The teachers are back to their original justification for striking -- to protect and extend the terms of their old contract, which did not directly involve money. And the school board is still hell-bent to assert control over educational policy.

Could there have been progress toward a settlement before this costly misadventure? It does little good to rehash what might have been if a) the school board had accepted Mayor Barry's original mediation proposal, which the teachers union apparently would have accepted then or b) the union had not served up a batch of new, ill-timed and destructive demands. As the situation kept changing, so did the needs for facesaving -- they became even harder to satisfy. All this has raised the profoundest questions that the community will have to address concerning what the educational roles of the board and union should be. That they need to be changed is certain. But that will have to wait. The immediate concentration should be on the conditions for the teachers' return.

Like it or not, something has to be given to make the teachers return, and when you are talking about anything beyond an interim agreement, you are talking about money -- something that the board cannot talk about until next year, when it will have some modified degree of authority to negotiate salaries. That is why the mayor and the City Council members, who have that authority now in concert with Congress, must be parties to settling this dispute.

Members of an elected school board in the stillearly days of elected local government in this city are jealous of any threat to their limited authority -- and they must get over it. In turn, the mayor and the City Council must continue to explore ways in which money can be traded for the kinds of educational controls that the board properly seeks to regain. If that means that the mayor and City Council must enter into delicate consultations with key members of Congress, so be it -- their help is needed, too.