The more I vote, the worse I am at it.

So far in my life I have cast 37 ballots in four counties and three states. I have voted while half-asleep. I have voted without a glance at the voters guide. I have voted enthusiastically for candidates I once considered loathsome threats to democracy.

But what is most perplexing about these many years fumbling with my civic duty is that I cannot recall a single occasion -- including school board races -- in which an education issue was an important factor in my decision or in the outcome of the election. This past week's elections in Virginia were no exception, with candidates talking about education but usually sounding very much alike.

There have been some national debates on schools, although a political historian I consulted had to go back to the late 1940s to find one that influenced many votes. Busing and desegregation issues have occasionally decided state and local elections.

But many office seekers shy away from arguing over the guts of education -- what reading and math programs to adopt, what salaries to pay teachers, what measures to use in determining if schools are good or bad. Even school board elections, with the greatest potential for lively discussions, often become little more than resume duels.

The latest Washington Post/ABC News Poll says education is "very important" to more voters than any other issue in next year's presidential election. Yet, except for the school vouchers debate, it is hard to see where the leading candidates differ. Few experts expect the election to be won or lost on anything having to do with schools.

Voters have learned how much alike elected officials sound when they address the issue. The standard political speech embraces, somewhat awkwardly, the popular if dubious notion that schools have grown worse. Then the candidate suggests a general remedy -- usually some Latinate term like competition or accountability. Then, very gingerly, the speaker mentions something specific.

School issues are volatile and unpredictable and some educational research would not make the grade at a middle school science fair. So the prudent candidate selects from a short list of fashionable reforms, such as vouchers or charter schools or reduced class size, as a token of substance and practicality.

There is nothing wrong with this. Even half-baked sound bites can sometimes do good. We have been listening to politicians decry crime and budget deficits for more than two decades and, lo and behold, both have declined. When I was a morose teenager fearing the future, my minister, a wise man named Verne Henderson, said the only real problems are those we are not worrying about. If that is so, then our schools are going to be fine.

But it would be helpful to have some way of calculating the worth of what we hear in political campaigns. Perhaps the attentive voter can start with what makes schools good and compare that to what the candidates are saying.

There are many well-grounded new prescriptions for educational excellence, such as the Democratic Leadership Council's 10 key ideas and the Heritage Foundation's "No Excuses" profiles of schools that succeeded against the odds. My personal list has three items on it: time, expectations and connections.

Students must have enough time to learn, something most of us understand. It has taken me two years, for instance, but I can now transfer errant telephone calls at the office without cutting off my boss's mother. Al Gore's talk of more money to keep schools open longer and Bill Bradley's ode to the extra hours that made him a basketball star show that they get this.

The second factor is high expectations. Teachers must believe in the limitless potential of every child. George W. Bush has provided an apt distillation of the problem: "the soft bigotry of low expectations." There are ways to monitor how much each student is being stretched, and most candidates seem to understand that.

That leaves the most important item on my list: personal connections. Each student must know that at least one adult at the school -- a counselor, a teacher, an administrator, a coach, a secretary, even a volunteer tutor -- knows them and is looking out for them. This is difficult to arrange, for it is a matter of the heart. It requires more than increased budgets and revised staffing plans.

Some of the presidential candidates have worked with children one-on-one. Perhaps they could talk more about that and what it has meant to them. Half a century ago Dwight D. Eisenhower won election after promising to go to Korea. It might be nice to hear a candidate in 2000 pledge to go to a D.C. school every week and tutor one child.

I would be tempted to cast my vote, for what it's worth, for the first candidate who stepped away from the campaign Web page, with its position papers and 21st-century agendas and speech texts, and spoke the simplest truth about making schools better: When it happens, it happens one kid at a time.

Jay Mathews's e-mail address is