EDUCATION has always been a hot issue in local politics, and it's sometimes a hot issue in state politics as well. But at the national level, it has not been a major issue since the early 1960s, when the Democrats called for federal aid to education and both parties stressed the need to meet the challenge represented by the Soviet Union's Sputnik.
Now, in response to the reports from three commissions this spring, we hear echoes of those old debates. Such politicians as Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan are joining, a little belatedly, the chorus of spontaneous amens that greeted the commissions' reports. They agree with the National Commission on Excellence in Education that we are "a nation at risk." They join the National Task Force on Education for Economic Growth in saying that "the schools are not doing an adequate job of educating for today's requirements in the work place, much less tomorrow's." They concur with the Twentieth Century Fund's report on federal elementary and secondary education policy that "we need a national commitment to excellence in our public schools."
All well and good. But there are a few disquieting notes here. President Reagan's first response to the commission reports was to call for tuition tax credits, education vouchers and school prayer-- which even if enacted wouldn't come close to solving the problems. Later, the president noted, correctly, that most of the decisions are made by states and local school districts. Still, we're told that his advisers see this as an issue on which he can dish the Democrats by capitalizing on the consensus that more discipline and rigor are needed and by endorsing merit pay for teachers.
That's something all three commissions recommend. But they also support higher pay for teachers and other solutions costing money, while Mr. Reagan remains committed to cutting federal aid to education. He has argued that spending more doesn't always improve education. This is self-evidently true, but it doesn't mean that spending less improves it either.
Former vice president Mondale joins the debate as a longtime supporter of more federal spending on education. In May, he unveiled some interesting proposals to use federal money to improve the quality of teaching and research and to ensure equal access to education. But he hasn't endorsed the commissions' proposals for premium pay for better teachers. Such proposals are adamantly opposed by the National Education Association, which is expected to endorse Mr. Mondale and which had 302 delegates at the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
Still, it's useful to have politicians talking about these issues, if only because it helps to have the arguments aired all over the nation, even when solutions have to be--and in many cases have been--sought locally. Much of the country now apparently shares a view which a few years ago was widespread in only some of the states: that our educational system isn't doing a good enough job. And if many politicians are latecomers to the debate about what should be done, they may still turn out to be useful participants.