THE MONEY THAT would go to most families for education under a Republican tax-gimmicking plan is so small something else must be afoot. And something else is; two things, actually.

The proposal by Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., would let parents shelter up to $2,000 a year from taxes and use the payoff for either public school expenses - supplies, presumably - or for private school tuition.The political game here is being run on two tracks.

One is to steel a march toward the enactment of the school voucher system that has become not only the main but just about the only GOP idea for improving education. That plan would give parents a chit worth X dollars - amount to be negotiated, and endlessly renegotiated - that they could use to send their kids either to private or to public schools.

Vouchers poll well but Republicans haven't been able to push them into law even so. The surface appeal crumbles when you get into the details. The prospect that the system would incite a boom in goofball academies is only one of many reasons for pause.

The far more modest and less ideological-seeming Coverdell plan sets off fewer alarms, which is precisely the idea.

Even so, with a tax expenditure that would cost the Treasury $1.6 billion over 10 years, the plan would establish a precedent for using public funds to subsidize private elementary and high school education, and it would lower the threshold for vouchers, which would wipe out church-state separation, by first badly smudging the line.

Then, too, the Coverdell plan would advance the GOP drive to reward the economy's big winners with tax favors other taxpayers have to make up. The real-world benefits to most public-school families would be a lousy $7 a year, to most private-school families just $37, so why bother?

Because "most" is very different from "all." The Treasury estimates 70 percent of the benefits would go to households in the top 20 percent of income. The Joint Tax Committee says 52 percent would go to the top 7 percent.

That's of a piece with last year's tax cuts and, ahem, reforms. Citizens for Tax Justice calculates that 83 percent of households with incomes under $59,000 get no break and the average for those that do is just $6 a year. The top 1 percent gets an average $7,135 bonbon.

President Clinton has said he will veto Coverdell's plan, and he should. With the nation's very real education needs, resources shouldn't be piddled away in dribs and drabs that do few if any families much good and do the system no good at all.

The president is right to hold out for a broader approach, using, for instance, federal backup to lower class sizes, leverage renovation of crumbling schools or rewire for the Internet age. Only 14 percent of classrooms have even one phone line, essential for Internet connection.

If Clinton's veto sticks, as seems likely, the standoff sets up at least one neat issue for this fall's congressional elections. Should federal effort in education go to investing in public school upgrades or into tax redistributions that mainly buck up religious and other private education?

The question alone should warn us off the cynicism that dismisses politics as not mattering.