OF ALL THE CLAIMS being made for the proposed Department of Education, the most incredible is that it would not grow. That flies against so much experience that it merits comment only because some House advocates of the proposal are trying so hard to be reassuring on this score.

Of course the department would give the federal educational establishment more authority, more prestige, more political heft with Congress and the larger educational community. Isn't that the point of the plan? It is silly to suggest that this could be pulled off without any growth of the bureaucratic sort. The House bill, for example, would give the new department a full complement of top management-a secretary, an undersecretary, six assistant secretaries and so on, for a total net gain of 56 executive-level and supergrade posts. As the Congressional Budget Office pointed out, these worthies would require supporting staffs numbering perhaps 100. You can hear the new furniture being ordered, the larger offices being leased and the payroll going up.

To soothe some wavering members, the House Government Operations Committee did decree that the new secretary would have to cut 450 positions (out of perhaps 13,500) in the first year and could add only 50 annually without congressional approval. But that would not hobble the enterprise much. The positions that would be dropped would surely not be deputies and special assistants; they would be slots, mostly low-ranking, that are going unfilled now. And if, through congressional inattention, the personnel ceillings did start to pinch, the secretary would have the standard power to hire more consultants and contract out more work.

So much for size. What about weight? The nogrowth advocates also claim that the new department would not become an overbearing, meddlesome, regulation-happy force. To ward off any such tendencies, the House bill would make the department's rules and regulations subject to congressional veto. To find that encouraging, however, you need to believe that Congress would be more consistent and wise in evaluating the department's rules than it is in writing the laws that generate those rules. Instead, the veto is more likely to become a substitute for thorough, across-the-board oversight.

Finally, there is the claim that the new department would actually be leaner than the current scheme because educational programs would be freed from all the bureaucratic tie-ups and budgetary reviews that the health-education-welfare structure involves. This runs in the wrong direction, too. Some of those checks and audits and coordinations are precisely what makes the HEW concept worthwhile; they subject education programs to scruthiny in the broader context of national social and budgetary policy. If the processes have become too cumbersome, the proper remedy is to improve them. Nothing is solved by pulling education out and creating a separate education empire.