ROCHESTER, NEW YORK. — IT WAS JUST a single vote on a single contract by a single teachers' union in a single city.
But when Rochester's school teachers turned down the landmark contract being offered them this fall, they raised the specter of defeat for one of America's most high-profile, widely praised school-reform efforts.
In return for salaries averaging $50,000, master-teacher pay running up to $80,000 or more, the teachers were asked to accept tough accountability standards, including a real risk of job loss for poor job performance.
Everything seemed in place to make Rochester a national model of visionary school change. It issued from the Carnegie Corporation's highly regarded 1986 task-force recommendations, ''A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century.'' Eastman Kodak, with a huge stake in preparedness of the local work force, joined other businesses in enthusiastic support. A special research institute was set up in Rochester to back up the effort.
The key words were decentralization, site-based management, professional freedom. The idea was that if teachers had an opportunity to earn a respectable professional wage and enjoyed autonomy in their classrooms instead of being overwhelmed by bureaucratic directives, they'd be motivated to put in extraordinary effort.
Extraordinary effort is what's needed to make education work in an inner-city school system like Rochester's, where three-fourths the students are either poor, black or Hispanic and 41 percent come from single-parent families.
To push the reform forward, Rochester had a remarkable working relationship between two veteran teachers intent on a massive leap forward -- school superintendent Peter McWalters and union leader Adam Urbanski, a Polish emigre with a Ph.D. in history. Mr. Urbanski has also enjoyed warm support from American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker, the leading union spokesman for wide-sweeping reforms.
Together, Messrs. McWalters and Urbanski forged a 1987 contract providing for school-based management committees, with both principals and teachers. It also raised salaries by more than a third over three years, purportedly only for merit.
But only 15 of the city's 2,400 teachers got unsatisfactory marks last year. This year's contract was to have put in place a far tougher evaluation system. Top-ranked teachers would get the biggest raises. Lowest-ranked teachers would get zero raises and be open to dismissal if they failed to shape up. The evaluations would be largely controlled by teachers themselves.
But the teachers voted no. Some 1,000 didn't even bother to vote. It was, some explained, a big day for the teachers' bowling league. The teachers' top fear was said to be lack of precision in the ranking procedures.
Does this mean the end of school for Rochester-style reform, for efforts to fix the hidebound, bureaucratic schools of America from inside the system?
Mr. Urbanski hopes it isn't so: ''This only proves real change is real hard and takes real time. I'm determined to continue down the reform path.''
Under state orders, Mr. Urbanski and Mr. McWalters have returned to the bargaining table. Mr. Urbanski expects a new contract in four to six weeks and predicts, ''This time the ratification will be overwhelming.''
It better be. Or Rochester will end up with sharply raised wages for a largely white, suburban-based teacher corps that is unaccountable to the poor and minority community that depends on it.
No accountability system is perfect. And many Rochester teachers might ask: Who's going to hold irresponsible parents and unruly students accountable? It's a fair point. Inner-city schools are no picnic to work in.
But Rochester's impasse poses the question: Can reform administered top-down, by the system and its business and union allies, cut the mustard today? Are too many administrators, too many teachers, wed to a system of taking orders, resisting innovation, passing the buck?
Waiting in the wings are alternatives much more ''radical'' than Rochester's: Chicago's experiment of delegating school control to individual parent-controlled, elected committees; or emerging
models, in Minnesota, Milwaukee and elsewhere, of letting parents select schools for their children, even giving them vouchers to do so.
Mr. Urbanski questions such experiments. Chicago's plan he says, is like turning hospitals over to the patients. ''Parent involvement is necessary, but that's not the same as turning control over to people who aren't trained.''
But what good are ''trained'' administrators and teachers if their schools are failures? And in the shark-like seas of international competition, can the Eastman Kodaks and other corporations of America afford a generation's lapse before they get a supply of qualified workers again?
Rochester, with a handful of other cities, represents the best effort of the education system's ''best and brightest'' to score a sorely needed breakthrough. The clock is ticking.