School bond issues are usually a local matter, decided by school boards and, sometimes, voters. But the issue has crept into the tax bill passed by Congress earlier this month and is likely to figure in post-veto negotiations over a compromise version.

For three years, the Clinton administration has pushed for a tax change that would make it cheaper for school districts to renovate or replace aging school buildings to accommodate the enrollment crush created by the baby boom's "echo boom." Until this year, congressional Republicans resisted, declaring school construction a local issue.

In the tax bill, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) has inserted a provision--more modest than the administration's proposal--that would allow districts to reap greater tax-free profits from reinvesting unexpended funds from bond sales. It is unclear how much construction the change would stimulate.

However much it is, the administration says it's not enough. It has lobbied for an alternative that would subsidize $25 billion in school bonds, enough to fund work on as many as 6,000 buildings. More than $100 billion is needed to repair the nation's schools or build new ones, according to the General Accounting Office. So far the administration proposal, put forward by Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), hasn't gone anywhere.

Rangel, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, this month launched a discharge petition drive to force a House floor vote on his bill--a long-shot move that Education Secretary Richard W. Riley has endorsed. The Education Department and White House have led lobbying efforts to push the Rangel bill, with help from the Treasury Department.

"If the federal government can help build prisons and roads, there is no excuse for refusing to provide critical assistance to modernize up to 6,000 schools," Riley said after Rangel announced the petition drive. Back in June, Riley stood with freshman House Democrats as they made an earlier, unsuccessful plea for action on school construction legislation.

Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.) has proposed similar legislation, and it is likelier to be in the mix during negotiations on an omnibus tax bill after President Clinton's promised veto. Or the Johnson bill could move as separate legislation. "There is a tremendous amount of interest in this bill," said David White, a Johnson spokesman.

Julie Green, an Education Department spokeswoman, indicated the administration would insist that an administration-style proposal on school construction be included in any compromise version of the tax bill. Congressional Republicans appear to be holding back because they hope to use the issue as a bargaining chip in the upcoming negotiations.

In pushing for federal assistance to build schools, the administration has stretched the government's traditional role in education, which focuses on aid to disadvantaged students. Rangel's bill would broaden a 1997 law he sponsored to subsidize $800 million in bonds for renovating schools--but only if they are in empowerment zones and at least 35 percent of the students they enroll come from low-income families.

Federal aid for building schools would be new. Even when the baby boomers came of school age, Washington didn't dabble in construction funding. In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked for $1 billion to ease what he called a "classroom shortage," but he didn't get it from a Democratic-controlled Congress.

BACK TO SCHOOL: Soon the nation's children will head back to school, and so will Riley. He's even taking a yellow school bus to get there.

At back-to-school time the last four years, Riley has jetted around the country, touching down at schools to urge parents and community leaders to step up their involvement in education. The basic message hasn't changed, but the secretary's mode of transportation has--to a school bus the former South Carolina governor boards Aug. 31 to begin a three-day tour of five southern and border states.

Riley will lead academic pep rallies in Chattanooga, Birmingham, Greenville, S.C., Charlotte and Atlanta--metro areas chosen because they have experienced rapid job growth and need schools to produce first-rate graduates to keep their economies rolling, Green said. Riley also plans to recap his efforts over the last two decades to improve the region's schools.

Late summer is a hot time for a long bus ride through the South, but Riley and the local officials and celebrities joining him aren't sweating the weather too much. This school bus will be air conditioned.