JUST yesterday, it seems, the federal role in public education was waxing. Congress passed Goals 2000 in 1994, which gave Washington the task of encouraging and coordinating the development of tougher academic standards throughout the states. The Department of Education fired off hopeful press releases counting the states drafting new standards and getting federal grants to help with that work.
Then the climate changed. Small-government, local-control Republicans flooded into Congress. An attempt at writing national history standards sparked furious debate on what history teaching should include.
Goals 2000, legislation built on a laudable Bush-era effort to zero in on national education goals - e.g., a 90 percent high-school graduation rate by the start of the next century - was viewed by critics as a federal power grab. It figured prominently in conspiracy theories about a big-brotherlike assault on the rights of parents and local boards. Its standards-approving panel was liken-ed to a ''national school board.'' Gingrich reformers zeroed out its budget.
Prospective budget trims at the Department of Education also would squeeze special education, bilingual education, Title 1 (aid for districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students), and loans and grants for college students. The cuts, 12 to 16 percent overall, may be reduced during final negotiations in Congress - and again after a Clinton veto leads to further bargaining.
The Education Department itself is in the sights of some budget cutters, though that attack won't come until next year at the earliest, and it will face strong opposition. Criticisms about the department's meddling in local decisionmaking are off base. The department has gone out of its way to waive regulations that might impede administrators and teachers. Its standards-setting guidelines are voluntary.
Some refining of the federal mission - in tandem with tough reforms at the state level and fresh ideas at the local level - could provide the kind of national team effort needed to solve a problem that defies the resources and reach of any one level of government.
Federal participation in education dates back, after all, to 1867, when the first federal office of education was established. That office's mission: to report on the status of learning throughout the country. The mandate has expanded in the second half of the 20th century to include programs designed to freshen US education and to address its many inequities. The Sputnik shock of the late 1950s and the civil rights movement of the '60s spurred those new roles.
In the mid 1980s, the startling ''Nation at Risk'' report brought new calls for federal involvement. Substandard education was identified as a national problem needing a national response if the US is to remain competitive. A logical outcome was President Bush's historic convening of state governors in Charlottesville, Va., in 1989 and '90. National goals were set and are still in effect.
What we're seeing now is more a revision of the federal role in education than a repudiation. The elements in Goals 2000 that evoked too strong an image of national control - like the standards panel - were bound to meet obstacles. They needed tempering. But the basic work of that legislation, the creation of standards within the states, will go on regardless. It's unquestionably needed. Just ask any parent disturbed about weak instruction in the ''basics.''
Ultimately, American students, their families, and the nation will be best served by a system of strong standards at the state level and considerable flexibility at the local level. Local administrators and teachers need freedom to experiment and try new approaches - even as they're held clearly accountable for students' mastery of reading, writing, math, and science.
THIS system will benefit from a federal presence that facilitates comparison of school performance between states, and between this country and others. Federal education officials will also have a continuing role in highlighting and addressing the inequities that assail education in a country composed of 50 states and 16,000 school districts. Money will still be available to help poorer districts and schools. Concerns about fairness, rooted in the constitutional guarantee of equal protection, demand this.
A lot will have to change in American education over the next half decade even to approach the six goals articulated five years ago in Charlottesville. Whole structures - such as slow-moving, bureaucratic local district administrations - will have to give way. Parents will have to become partners with classroom teachers. Discipline and respect will have to be reintroduced to many classrooms.
Nothing, short of the quality of family life, has a greater impact on America's future than the state of its schools - on that Americans can agree. Federal officials, from presidents on down, have a part to play in molding that agreement into meaningful action. It's not a direct, in-the-classroom role, but a crucial supporting one.