WASHINGTON — Washington. - Over 20 years I've enjoyed debating my distinguished colleague James J. Kilpatrick on the issue of education in America, and the need for massive federal financing of public schools.
He lashes out that federal money means federal control, and declares that ''education is a state and local responsibility.''
I riposte that education is as much a part of America's defense as the military, and then I deliver my killing blow: ''If someone walked into this room and said we should abolish the Pentagon and its central command and let state and local militia defend America, you'd slap that sucker in a straitjacket before either of us could cry, 'Doctor!' ''
Well, Heaven help all mankind, the people of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) are doing what I once regarded as unthinkable.
On Sunday, the new titular head of the FSU announced that his province, Russia, was going to form a small Russian national army. Suddenly the guy who claimed he personally would have control of all of the FSU's 27,000 nuclear weapons, including the codes needed to launch them on Washington, was talking about forming a Russian national guard of 30,000 to 40,000 people.
Meanwhile, leaders of Ukraine, who apparently have agreed to turn over their nukes to Russia and Boris Yeltsin, expressed chilling fear that some of the weapons might be stolen or sold while in transition. The leaders in Kiev were not playing chicken, we must hope, when they said they were installing beepers to keep track of every missile and warhead dispatched to Moscow.
Then the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, said in Rome that there is ''serious danger of a coup in a number of commonwealth countries,'' meaning that thousands of tactical nuclear weapons are out there available for seizure by paramilitary groups eager to use them in a civil war between the new ''commonwealth'' countries.
That thought evokes enough horror. But Mr. Shevardnadze and other citizens of the now-collapsed communist empire tell us that we ought to be terrorized by the prospect that some of the grotesque ex-Soviet nuclear weapons could be sold or bartered to ''the wrong people.''
''Go ahead and say that I would be terrorized,'' Mr. Shevardnadze told the newspaper Corriere della Sera.
In a United States that just fought a costly war against Iraq, without destroying Saddam Hussein or all his bomb-building, nerve-gas capacities, ''the wrong people'' would seem to mean the Iraqis.
But it could mean the Iranians, the Syrians, the Cubans, still-angry forces in Panama, the North Koreans, the Punjabis in India, the Croatians in Yugoslavia.
The People's Republic of China would not be averse to buying or stealing some formulas and secrets about the most devastating of the Soviet nuclear weapons.
The odds are overwhelming that before the political and social retchings are over in Mr. Yeltsin's new ''Commonwealth,'' Israel will no longer have a monopoly on nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, and the break-up of the Soviet empire, have surely lessened the threat of a great-power nuclear attack on the United States. But that collapse, and that break-up in Eastern Europe have multiplied the chances of a ''little'' nuclear exchange somewhere, the spread of which would imperil the whole planet.
Provincial and local control of nukes, like state and local control of American education, is a bummer.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.