The House yesterday approved a new education block grant that would give school districts more flexibility to decide how they spend $2 billion in federal funds for hiring and training teachers. But President Clinton has threatened to veto the legislation, arguing that it jeopardizes his initiative to recruit 100,000 new teachers to reduce class size in the earliest grades.

The debate over the modest legislation--which does not alter the basic purposes or funding levels of current law--represented an early skirmish over education policy, which is expected to be one of the largest issues in next year's elections. Already, both major parties have begun to angle for an advantage on the issue, which has topped many public opinion polls.

The bill would take funds for existing programs for class size reduction, school improvement and professional teacher training and roll them into a single block grant, enabling school districts to choose whether to use the funds for hiring new teachers or for upgrading the skills of teachers already on their payrolls. The added flexibility, sponsors argued, is needed by districts that would be forced into hiring unqualified teachers and ones that have already met Clinton's national goal of an average class size of 18 students in the first, second and third grades without federal help.

House Republicans had hoped to win over enough moderate Democrats to override Clinton's threatened veto, but they fell short, passing the bill 239-185 in a largely party-line vote.

Republican lawmakers, restating the party's approach to federal education aid, cast the debate as one of local control of schools vs. distant federal mandates. "Apparently, the Clinton-Gore administration believes Washington has all of the answers and would rather dictate a top-down policy that cares only about numbers" of new teachers hired, said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Rep. Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) said the bill would "send the money back to the classroom."

Rather than arguing about federal vs. local control, Clinton and his Democratic allies charged that the block grant was an attempt to undermine the president's class-size reduction program, adopted last year with bipartisan support and backed by research showing achievement gains by young pupils in smaller classes.

"I will veto it in order to protect our nation's commitment to smaller classes and better schools," Clinton said Monday in a letter to House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), whose home state has moved to reduce class sizes but struggled to find enough qualified teachers, said the GOP-sponsored bill "guts the class-size reduction program."

In fact, the existing program does allow flexibility for school districts facing circumstances of the kind cited by House Republicans. North Dakota, for instance, was granted a waiver last month that will allow some of the state's school districts to devote the funds solely to teacher training. Similarly, Chicago--whose overcrowded schools don't have the space for smaller classes--hopes to receive a waiver to use the money for summer classes for students who have fallen behind.

The block grant legislation was the first of several bills that House Republican leaders intend to push renewing various federal education programs. In contrast, Senate leaders plan to take a more traditional approach and draft a single, comprehensive renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, ultimately forcing the various House bills into the same format.