With the November election a week away, the differences between Ronald Reagan's and Walter Mondale's positions on education are very clear. The President's legislative program is straightforward - a constitutional amendment allowing prayer in the schools, tuition tax credits, stricter discipline, merit pay, greater state and local control, an end to forced busing. If he were given full rein (Congress did not give it to him in his first term), he would significantly reduce and restructure federal education programs.
Walter Mondale directly challenges tuition tax credits, vouchers, and merit pay as ideas that would seriously weaken the public schools. He has been and remains a vigorous proponent of a larger and more diverse federal role in education. He is for forced busing to correct racial imbalance. He calls for a substantial increase in federal funds in support of minorities and the disadvantaged and for increased innovation and research and development.
Ironically, with the release of a report (''A Nation at Risk'') by his own education commission, Mr. Reagan found himself on a roller coaster propelled by public concern about putting education back on the national agenda. As a result, he has given more than 45 major addresses on education, utilizing his office as a ''bully pulpit'' for his ideas emphasizing that school is ''a building with four walls and the future inside.''
In his first term the President sought to dismantle the Department of Education (Congress thwarted this) as well as consolidate or eliminate most federal programs into block grants administered by the states. A bill he supported granting open access to school facilities by religious groups was passed. New funding for math and science teachers was passed.
The massive financial cutbacks feared by his opponents didn't come to pass, but neither did increases. Federal funding for programs grew during President Reagan's four years in office from $14.8 billion in fiscal year 1981 to an estimated $17 billion in fiscal 1985. Given inflation, however, funding has suffered a loss of almost $4 billion in 1980 dollars, or a decline of about 25 percent.
The President has campaigned on a six-point reform program, which, he says, does not need ''vast new sums of money.'' He wants to:
* Restore ''good, old-fashioned discipline.'' He calls for stricter disciplinary codes and for the necessary support from parents and the public to enable teachers and principals to enforce them.
* Wage an all-out fight to end drug and alcohol abuse, doing ''whatever it takes'' to keep them out of schools and out of the hands of children.
* Raise academic standards and expectations. Reagan wants to see children spending less time in front of the TV and more time doing homework.
* Encourage excellent teaching, especially by paying and promoting teachers on the basis of competence and merit.
* Let parents and state and community governments take the lead in running schools, with the federal government playing a minor role in the educational process. Decisions about discipline, curriculum, and standards are state and local, not federal matters, Reagan feels.
* Return to teaching the basics - reading, writing, and math - so that United States schools can be competitive with those of Japan, West Germany, and the Soviet Union.
Although Mr. Mondale is in agreement with the President on what many of the current problems and deficiencies in education are, his solutions to those problems are very different. Having won the endorsement of the nation's two largest teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, Mondale has made education a centerpiece of his campaign. Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro is herself a former elementary school teacher.
Mondale wants three new roles for the federal government. He would create a national ''fund for excellence'' to help school systems assess their needs and plan how to move toward higher standards. He would offer merit fellowships for research and study in subjects of critical national need. He would begin a five-year effort to refurbish laboratories and libraries. He estimated that if his ideas are carried out, they will cost an additional $11 billion annually.
Five specific proposals stem from these Mondale strategies:
* An additional $1 billion to ensure that ''all American families, not just the wealthy ones, can afford a college education for their children.''
* An additional $3 billion to improve educational achievement and opportunity for low-income and disadvantaged children.
* One billion dollars targeted to revitalize university research.
* One billion dollars for the creation of an ''education corps'' to attract talented young people through merit scholarships. This would include summer training institutes for teachers and principals.
* A $4.5 billion annual investment in a fund for excellence that would further locally determined school improvement goals. Communities would set up their own commissions of excellence - parents, teachers, administrators, business and local civic leaders - to assess their educational needs.