If American voters suddenly fancy that in some fundamental sense they are back in the classroom - they are right. Polls show education emerging as a key issue in the coming presidential election, right alongside unemployment, protecting US jobs from overseas competition, and inflation. And not surprisingly, political leaders are taking careful note of those findings. Turn on the evening news, for example, and there is President Reagan, talking with high school students in a classroom out in Farragut, Tenn. Or Walter Mondale, John Glenn, or Ernest Hollings urging a massive infusion of federal funds to help pull up America's educational socks.
The sudden attention to education is welcome, provided that the debate focuses on the real issues facing the nations' schools and does not lapse into a contest for votes based on blatant political considerations - with rival candidates seeking to build differing education-oriented constituencies: pitting , for example, teachers against administrators or teachers' union against teachers' union; college-bound students against job-bound students; voters who have no school-age children against parents. The point is that the United States is being alerted to rethink its educational priorities. But it needs to do so in an intelligent, comprehensive way that seeks out the broadest possible solutions geared toward unifying society and actually promoting the educational changes needed.
What are the fundamental issues?
* Excellence. In large part, of course, the issue is one of ensuring that young people gain those intellectual and social skills necessary for an increasingly high-technology, computerized society. That means developing individual competence in such areas as grammar, mathematics, public discourse - the so-called educational ''basics.'' In this regard, many of the recommendations of the National Commission on Excellence in Education make good sense - namely, higher academic standards, better pay for teachers, stricter discipline, and, in some instances, more homework and a longer school year.
That is not to say that various ''life-style'' courses are not important. They are, and they can provide essential information that young people need in today's fast-paced society. Vocational education courses are also important, particularly to the 48 percent of high school graduates who do not go on to college. Vocational courses help prepare a student to be a productive part of the economy, certainly a desirable individual and collective goal.
Perhaps most important, however, is the need to ensure that young people develop thinking and reasoning skills, the qualities necessary for socially acceptable behavior and responsible citizenship - community service, making wise choices in the election process, fostering constructive change in society.
* Equalizing access. The educational battle of the 1960s and 1970s was over the issue of access, ensuring that the poor and disadvantaged - and to a large extent that meant minorities and the handicapped - were not unfairly left out of the American mainstream. Millions of hitherto deprived youngsters are now attending schools that in terms of equipment, classroom size, books, and staff are far superior to anything they might have had in the past. But the battle is far from over. Test scores, for example, continue to show disparities between children in many inner city schools and their suburban counterparts.
* Broadening the base. The educational process needs to be opened up to all segments of society having a stake in schools - parents, grandparents, retired persons with free time, and corporations and community groups that both require special skills and can teach them to younger persons. Museums, libraries, and community youth groups can also be enlisted in public service programs.
* Federal role. A strong federal initiative should be maintained to ensure access of all children to the best possible education as well as to help promulgate national standards where appropriate. The Department of Education could develop incentive programs designed to improve teaching and administration , such as merit pay for teachers and master teacher plans (now under way in some states).
These incentives will be discussed in a subsequent editorial. But in the long run a crash infusion of federal (or even local) funds - as advocated by Democratic presidential candidates - will not by itself be the answer to the nation's educational challenge. Perhaps more important than programs based on dollar outlays are efforts aimed at tapping the talent and cooperation of the local communities. Public service programs need not cost much.
Finally, beyond all the governmental and political prescriptions for shoring up the American educational process must be a public recognition that teaching is a way of loving children - and shaping the future. Adults need to see themselves as the guardians of America's great experiment in universal public education, a process that encompasses not just the school system but all forms of communication and learning, including television and radio, newspapers, the pulpit. Such a vision of education means not only voting the taxes necessary to ensure the best instruction in the classroom - but elevating every aspect of society to embody its highest ideals.