For more than 10 years Northern Virginians have been battling their downstate cousins for the right to do something voters in every other state in the union take for granted: elect their local school board members.

In a Virginia legislative committee hearing room today, it was apparent that traditional divisions between the two camps are still strangling those efforts.

"What we're really talking about here is what I call the secret elite," said Del. Lewis P. Fickett Jr., a Fredericksburg Democrat. "The process of making educational policy in this state is the private reserve of the old landowning elite. And when the new people come in, they just slam the door in their faces."

Although representatives of Arlington's County Board and school board have traveled repeatedly to Richmond in the past to push for such a change, Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) said she wasn't looking for a local rooting section this year.

"I thought it would be a shame to bring everyone down here in the cold and snow for a whole day when it [the elected school board proposal] isn't going anywhere," said Marshall.

Faced with a choice of four bills that would lift the state's prohibition on elected school panels, several committee members said they feared that local elections of school board members would politicize school policy-making procedures, reduce the quality of school board candidates, and drive up school spending.

Committee Chairman Del. John D. Gray (D-Hampton) insisted the dispute revolves around questions of fiscal responsibility. Gray said locally elected school boards could result in disunity if the ability to levy taxes remained in the hands of local supervisors or council members.

While school boards in most urban areas are appointed by local governing bodies, most rural school boards around the state are appointed by local commissions, which in turn are named by area circuit court judges.

"Who elects the judges of the circuit court? The Democratic caucus of the General Assembly," said Harley Williams, who represented the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance at the hearing. "So why would they want to change it?"

The school board election measures are supported by a broad range of state groups that includes the Virginia Education Association, the state's conservative taxpayers' association and boards of supervisors from the Northern Virginia localities. The change has been pursued by Arlington County officials ever since the General Assembly withdrew its permission for an elected board in the mid-1950s.

Arlington's liberal school board, which governed from 1946 to 1956 as the first and only elected school board in modern Virginia history, was tossed out by the Byrd Machine-dominated legislature after the board refused to follow its lead during "Massive Resistance" -- the state's campaign against school desegregation.