"Let us tell America that just as no law graduate can practice law without passing the bar exam, no teaching graduate should be allowed to instruct America's children without first passing a valid exam that tests mastery of subject matter and professional skills."

No, that is not an excerpt from yet another citizen's task force report supporting Back to Basics in education. Instead those words are lifted -- in context -- from the keynote speech to the National Education Association's convention by that organization's president, Mary Hatwood Futrell.

As one who earlier challenged the NEA to show a scintilla of decency by changing its middle name and revealing itself to be what it is -- a teachers' union -- and who disparaged the NEA for demanding federally funded teacher centers (to develop "nonsexist, nonracist, multi-lingual curricula") at a time when parents and other conscientious citizens were alarmed by declining reading scores and SAT scores in the nation's schools, I now congratulate Futrell and her organization for formally endorsing the competency testing of future teachers.

Still, past and present problems in the quality of instruction in American public schools cannot be pinned on prospective teachers. What about competency testing, which the public so strongly supports, of present teachers?

"Incompetent teachers ought to be dismissed after being evaluated," says Futrell. But that evaluation, if the NEA has any say in it, would not include any test like the one recently administered to Arkansas's 28,000 public-school teachers as part of the reform package championed by Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton.

In Arkansas, 10 percent of the teachers failed at least one of the exam's three parts of reading, writing and math. Tragically, some 905 teachers failed all three. Undoubtedly among those 905 are some wonderfully nurturing, caring and compassionate individuals. But, because they are unable to teach the 23,000 unlucky children in their classrooms what they themselves do not know, the 905 cannot be called teachers.

The competency testing of teachers, according to a recent Gallup survey commissioned and released by the NEA, is overwhelmingly endorsed by the American public. More than nine out of 10 respondents believe competency tests would improve the quality of teaching in our public schools. But the survey's most important and encouraging news was the finding that some 52 percent of us support more funds for public education "even if it means higher taxes." Only 9 percent are opposed to spending more on public education.

Americans are notoriously practical and realistic sorts, willing to spend more for better teachers but wanting to be sure what is paid fo is gotten. No ouch-less, painless approach to educating our children like that toward the Pentagon, in which we seemed to agree in 1981 to "pay for" the doubling of the nation's defense budget by patriotically accepting a one-third cut in our taxes.

Public-school teachers are yearning for public respect, which the public, clearly concerned by threatening economic pressures about its children's future, is willing to provide in the form of higher pay -- provided the public can be assured that any and all rotten apples are out of the classroom.

The price and the performance of public education influence our politics. Today neither political party has an automatic advantage as the Democrats did, before their credentials of competence were so severely tarnished, on the education issue. Politically, education is up for grabs.

But a grown-up American electorate is not falling for simplistic scapegoating or ringing rhetoric absent the reality of increased spending. The sincerity of all involved, including the NEA, remains open to question and subject to proof. We may, however, have learned something important about public education.