Election years bring out the best and worst in politicians and their followers. Debates at every level, including the presidential race, too often get bogged down in one kind of dirt or another, and the heart of issues becomes obscured or distorted.

It seems doubly helpful in a charged, partisan atmosphere when political opposites agree on what problems are, even when they may disagree in the smaller details of what causes them or how they could be resolved.

The leading Republican presidential candidate, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, and Secretary of Education Richard Riley have written contrasting columns about problems facing education in the United States (abridged versions of the commentaries are on today's Opinion page). The differences in their opinions are notable, but at the heart of each one's concern is parental involvement in children's education.

Dole cites a New York public school teacher's insistence that parents of her students pledge to provide quiet study space and encourage children to obey school discipline. Dole wondered what would happen if parents turned off their television sets part of every evening and spent 20 minutes each night helping their children read an additional one million words every year.

Riley, President Clinton secretary of Education and a nationally recognized education advocate as governor of South Carolina, agreed with many of Dole's other concerns. He finds strongest common ground with Dole on the issue of parental involvement, citing the administration's and the private sector's specific efforts to encourage family involvement. Riley cited Marriott, GTE and United Airlines for their commitments to allow parents time off to become more involved in their children's schools.

The home, as Dole, Riley and almost everyone else concerned about childhood learning understands, is the first teacher. It also can be the best teacher when parents know how their children are expected to learn, why they're expected to learn, and how parental support can make the difference between success and failure, between mediocrity and excellence.

Both sides agree on this point, and it is the one issue cited that probably could make the most positive difference for every child in the nation. It especially could become education's best friend among the most disadvantaged students. Wouldn't it be great if the Republicans and Democrats tried to outdo one another helping parents become more involved on a daily basis in their children's education?

Agreement, unfortunately, doesn't produce political fireworks like placing blame for things largely beyond the control of either party or any president.

If a stable and nurturing family is one of our society's greatest values and virtues, then promoting parental involvement in the total education of children ought to be a major plank in both parties' platforms.

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