In this cynical city it is heresy, or something close to it, to say anything nice about a presidential budget. OK, send me to the stake. In his requests for education, President Bush has said some things that need to be said, and he has recommended some steps that ought to be taken.

"There is near universal agreement," the gentleman observes, "that the educational system in this country, as presently organized and operated, is failing to produce a sufficient number of graduates prepared to meet the demands of the changing workplace."Bush cites familiar evidence. Scholastic aptitude scores of high-school seniors last year were "a full 50 points below the scores of college-bound seniors 20 years earlier." Too many American students read poorly and write ineffectively; they do not have much of a grasp on either mathematics or science. They are ignorant of the great themes of history. In international scholastic competitions, "U.S. students perform poorly in every grade."

Why is this happening? For one thing, our school year still reflects an agrarian past, when youngsters were expected to work all summer on the farm. Thus our students attend classes for only 180 days of instruction. The school year in Japan is 210 days, in South Korea 220 days, in Germany 226 to 240 days.

Moreover, said the president, recent studies have shown that, on average, American students do not work very hard. They spend nearly as much time watching television as they spend in school.

All this is old stuff. What is new, and encouraging, is that Bush proposes to do something about it. He acknowledges that public education must remain primarily a responsibility of the states and localities, but the federal government properly may do two things: It may set specific educational goals, and it may stimulate reforms that will help to reach them.

The president's goals are ambitious. For example, "By the year 2000 U.S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics." By 2000, every adult American will be literate. All children will be ready to learn when they start school. High-school graduation rates will increase "to at least 90 percent," and every school will be free of drugs and violence.

Are the goals attainable? Probably not, but they are worth striving for. The goals would require herculean effort at every level. Bush is asking Congress to increase federal outlays for education from $14.6 billion in 1990 to $19.6 billion in 1992. The recommendation will not satisfy the teachers' unions - $100 billion would not satisfy the teachers' unions - but increases of this magnitude will help.

Bush wants more money for Head Start and more money for WIC (Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Feeding Program). He asks $690 million for a new Educational Excellence Act. He proposes to invest $1.9 billion in math and science education. He would increase opportunities for students from low-income families to attend college.

It is especially pleasing to see the administration embrace the idea of freedom of choice in education. Mind you, this is a timid embrace. It is not exactly a bear hug. Bush recommends an item of $200 million to create an "educational certificate support fund." He explains:

"This program will provide incentive grants to local school districts with qualified certificate programs that enhance parental choice. Funds will be available `only to school districts with federal compensatory education programs for the disadvantaged that also have operational certificate programs. Qualified programs will, at minimum, provide for public and private school choice."

In the nature of things, Congress will revise and amend the Bush budget - and properly so. Get to work! But let us treat the budget for education with tender loving care. At first glance it looks good.