DECISIONS BY local school boards, the progress of a governor's program in one state's legislature, changes in teaching methods in one locality: all these things add up, but it takes time to see just what they add up to. A recent survey by Post reporter Keith Richburg shows just what the total can be: "a dramatic reformation of public education" in the South. Thirteen southern states now require tests for teacher certification; three have moved to require competency tests for current teachers; nine have increased the requirements for graduation from high school; seven have launched or are experimenting with plans for merit pay for teachers; and most have raised teachers' pay substantially, with three increasing their sales taxes for just that purpose. Major education reform programs have been passed by governors of both parties, such as Richard Riley (D-S.C.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and William Winter (D-Miss.).

All this has happened in the region that has historically had the nation's lowest levels of educational spending and educational achievement. Not coincidentally, it has also had the nation's lowest incomes. Gradually, however, the gap between the South and the rest of the nation has been narrowing. In the 1950s and 1960s this resulted primarily from the outmigration of many poor southerners to the big cities in the North. But beginning in the late 1960s -- around the time the civil rights laws were passed -- the outmigration slowed. Poor rural southerners moved increasingly to southern cities or took low-wage jobs in the factories and mills that sit along every southern interstate and many rural highways.

As this happened, it became apparent to many southern leaders that further progress would come only from a higher-wage economy, and that required a better traied, more highly educated labor force. Spontaneously in state after state, southern politicians in the late 1970s and early 1980s concentrated on improving the schools, with the results Mr. Richburg reports. They did so even though many southern whites have abandoned public schools and many businessmen fear higher taxes will prevent their states from attracting new industry.

Not all the reforms may work as intended. But taken together they are almost certain to do much good. It's interesting to note that they did not have their origins in any central agency or national elite. They were not championed by the Department of Education, on whose creation the National Education Association and the Carter administration labored so long, and with the exception of higher teacher salaries they were more likely to encounter opposition than support from teachers' unions.

This "dramatic reformation" was the result of the workings of the political process, of the interchange between skillful politicians and voters, both black and white, who recognized needs broader than their own self-interest. The result is doubly encouraging: not only are southern children receiving better educations, but politicians and voters in the states are showing they can address and solve problems that national leaders ignore.