BARELY INTO the second week of school in the city, the gears of public education seem to be shifting smoothly to cruising speed -- thanks to an unusual but welcome combination of events. Parents, teachers, administrators and even those captive audiences in the classrooms can take comfort in, and advantage of, a conspicuous absence of those conditions that used to impede the best attempts at effective instruction.

It should go without saying, except it usually cannot, that this fall there are no school board elections, nor are there any of the traditional ill-tempered, tasteless, ad hominem wars of words that used to preoccupy a majority of members with big political agendas and small minds. It isn't that elections are bad; in fact, that is how the board has been weeded and improved. Today, it is a credit to board president David Eaton and other cooler heads who appear content to trade the headlines of notoriety for the satisfaction of serious attention to public duty.

Also missing but not missed is the threat or possibility of a teachers' strike and all the attendant bitterness and damaging effects. The last agreement between the union and the board contained changes and provisions sought by each side, not to mention by those on the sidelines. Couple this labor peace with an absence of last-minute dismissals and transfers of teachers and you've got better morale than you've seen in a long time.

Spirits were improved, too, with the news of improvements in test scores in the lower grades; these seem to point to an educational payoff from the recent re-emphasis on basics in a more sharply defined and specific curriculum.

Setting a tone for improvement, sharpening the focus and attracting new outside interest in the classrooms is Superintendent Floretta McKenzie, whose working relationship with city hall as well as the school board has paved the way for equitable budgets and better spending. Suddenly there is some money to shift into salaries for several hundred more teachers as well as into computers, special classes, reductions in school-lunch prices and more clerical aides to relieve teachers of some paper work. And with enrollments dropping, classes are becoming smaller.

None of this is to pretend that all is rosy. Test scores still have room to soar, and, in the case of high schools, remain depressingly low; language, music and sports programs deserve better than third fiddle in the mix of challenges and rewards of school life; and the newfound support of business for programs in the high schools should be complemented by an extension of the competency-based curriculum monitoring techniques being applied in the earlier grades.

For now, the academic year is young, as are the school system's charges -- and both have opportunities to progress dramatically. And that, in anybody's book, should be good news.