If the Education Department has taken on an expansive role under President Clinton, much of the credit--or blame, depending on your political outlook--rightly belongs to his predecessor. At least so says Education Secretary Richard W. Riley.

It was President George Bush's summit with governors in 1989 to set the nation's education goals that altered the course of federal involvement with schools and conferred on Washington "a meaningful role in shaping the educational progress of this nation," Riley said in a recent speech.

"There was an agreement that improving education should be part of our national purpose and that the federal government could play a positive and constructive role, but as a junior partner with the states," Riley concluded.

The education goals were stamped into federal law in 1994. Thus did the government go from urging and monitoring educational progress to "shaping" it, to use Riley's word.

There had been howls from defenders of local control of schools when Congress, back in the 1960s, mandated a series of tests called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But hardly more than a token peep of protest has been heard as the department has ventured deeper into school improvement.

Riley's reason shows the former South Carolina governor has not lost his political ear: "More than ever before, the American people are telling us that improving education has to be high on our national agenda."

BIGGER BUCKS: To go along with its expanding mission, the Education Department has gotten a fatter budget. The combination of Clinton and a Republican Congress has been very good to the department, with appropriations up 55 percent in five years to $35.6 billion.

Which raises an obvious question: Where have all those dollars gone?

Gone mostly to traditional programs to help disadvantaged students, although some Clinton new-style priorities have done well for themselves. The biggest winner has been the Pell Grant program for low-income college students, up $2.8 billion, followed by $2.7 billion more for special education for disabled students, a Republican favorite. Funding for the Title I remedial program for disadvantaged students has risen by $1.4 billion, despite being a Great Society program that warms few GOP hearts.

Rounding out the top five are Clinton's $1.3 billion program to reduce class sizes by hiring more teachers and $700 million for educational technology programs he has pushed.

TRACKING THE DOLLARS: With all that new money to spend, maybe it should come as no surprise that the Education Department has had trouble keeping track of it all. Department officials worked nearly two years with PricewaterhouseCoopers to audit the books for fiscal 1997, and Ernst & Young gave up on finishing the 1998 audit--without rendering an opinion.

A House Education and the Workforce subcommittee hearing on the agency's financial management spun tales of slipshod bookkeeping. In one case, Ernst & Young discovered a $6 billion discrepancy between $19 billion mentioned in a footnote and $13 billion in an explanatory report. To reconcile that huge difference, the department deleted the footnote.

A department official later explained the discrepancy reflected $6 billion left over from prior years and included in a tally of funds committed but unspent in 1998.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), oversight and investigations subcommittee chairman, cited another audit discovery of someone who appeared to owe--impossibly, one hopes--$800,007,306.28 in student loans. College tuition has been going up, but not that much.

The department's defense: The computer did it.

Those sorts of accounting problems, Deputy Secretary Marshall Smith testified, have been caused by bad software that is being scrapped but won't be completely replaced until 2001. A General Accounting Office investigator also noted similar software glitches have dogged other agencies, too. Comforting . . .