And where would the money come from?
"You've got to have a combination of taking it out of the defense budget and raising revenue," he said. "We can argue about how to do that, closing loopholes or even raising taxes to do it."
Mind you, his goal in life is not to reinforce the stereotype of Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals. Raising taxes is not his first choice.
"I feel we can find room in the budget to do what must be done without a tax increase," Gephardt said. "But if we can't, well, this is the paramount challenge we face as a society, and I think the public shares that view ...
"I'd be proud to vote for tax increases for schools. You bet I would."
He thinks there are ways to structure increased federal aid to education, which stands at about $12 billion, without stirring up the familiar debate about whether federal aid (a good thing) equals federal control (not a good thing).
One way, he says, would be to reward schools that perform. But there would be huge problems figuring out who gets rewarded for what. And conservatives, understandably, are dead set against Washington picking winners and losers.
The other idea, initially proposed by the Clinton administration, is more intriguing. Have the federal government pay the interest (not the principal) on the bonds to finance new schools. This would be a godsend for urban districts such as Philadelphia, where funds are limited and buildings are antiquated.
Gephardt thinks Americans are more accepting of taxation when they can see their dollars at work. They didn't mind being taxed for interstate highways. Why not a national school building program?
And while others are advocating vouchers to help some students opt out of the public system, the congressman from St. Louis still sees the neighborhood school as the best vehicle to address the variety of the social ills brought to the fore by the Littleton shootings.
"Look, I'm for gun legislation; I think it'll help reduce the youth violence," Gephardt said. "But it takes more than that. ... We're spending one-third less time with our kids than we did 20 years ago, and if there's one thing we know, it's that kids don't raise themselves.
"We all unconsciously assumed that there was no cost to everybody going to work. Guess what? There was. The cost was kids having less adult contact. Families have changed. Family life has changed. We haven't let our institutions keep up with that change. That's why we need a revolution in public education."
That revolution is one idea in his new book, An Even Better Place: America in the 21st Century. The volume must have started out as a presidential campaign tract. And when he decided not to run, it was transformed into a case for giving the Democrats control of Congress.
In his view, asking parents to do more to guide and monitor children is essential. But he says it's silly, given the demands of modern life, to expect adults to spend a lot more time with their kids.
Neighborhood schools, particularly in cities, must become social services centers for families, Gephardt says, providing after-school programs, day care for preschoolers and quality education.
"How do we affect every kid's life?" he asked. "There's only one mechanism I know of: the public schools. You put in the resources, and you demand results."
It's a traditional view, but a bold one in an era when big government and public solutions are in disrepute. The next president, of course, is likely to have other thoughts, particularly a Republican president.
Still, it's nice to hear someone looking at a big problem and searching for a big answer. Even if it costs money.
Larry Eichel's column appears on Wednesdays and Fridays. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org