A good old-fashioned paddling is what undisciplined children in Virginia schools need, according to the state attorney general -- and the Republicans' choice for governor -- J. Marshall Coleman.

"It worked in my case, so I recommend it to others," Coleman said last week at a northern Virginia press conference. "I would like to see us try other methods first, however."

Coleman was in Crystal City last week to outline his views on education, and he made it clear that he didn't plan on going soft on school discipline.

"One thing that has become evident to me is that discipline is now the number one problem in our schools," Coleman said as he stood behind his official campaign poster in a conference room at the Crystal City Stouffer Hotel. "If you have disorder in the classroom, all is lost. We would be better off not doing as good a job teaching . . . and to have discipline.

"Unquestionably, the absence of discipline is contributing to a withdrawal of students from public to private schools," Coleman continued, reading from a prepared statement. "I believe parents should be free to choose private schooling for their children, but they should not be driven to this choice out of a fear that public schools no longer provide a good learning environment."

Despite a major campaign this year by the Virginia Education Association to promote discipline in the schools, neither the VEA nor local teacher's groups have endorsed Coleman or his opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, for governor. Teachers' leaders say they usually wait until later in the campaign to make endorsements.

As governor, Coleman said he would urge the General Assembly to pass laws broadening the power of classroom teachers; make assault on a teacher a class 6 felony, which carries a sentence of one to five years in prison, rather than a class 1 misdemeanor, and require schools to report all incidences of vandalism to police authorities and the parents of the perpetrators.

In addition, Coleman said he would lead a public awareness campaign that would try to involve parents in the disciplining of their children. This move would not cost the taxpayers any money, he predicted.

Spokesmen for all three major school districts in Northern Virginia say they are cracking down on lax discipline by implementing in-school suspensions when possible and adding patrols to the halls to monitor student behavior and reduce vandalism. Vandalism, which is most prevalent locally in the Fairfax County school system, has reached such proportions in Fairfax that officials there say at least one act of vandalism against school property is committed every night of the year. Vandalism cost Fairfax taxpayers about $385,000 last year, according to school officials, while in nearby Arlington, a much smaller school system, officials estimated less than $5,000 in vandalism and theft. Alexandria officials had no estimates available for last year.

Asked about his interest in the deterioration of the school discipline, Coleman told reporters that not only had his wife once been a teacher (and been assaulted by a student) but he had guest-taught on two occasions in recent months and was convinced from his experiences that only a return to discipline would salvage Virginia's public education system.

"We have to recapture authority at the level of the classroom," Coleman said. "The teacher ought to be able to remove the disruptive student . . . there should be swift and certain punishment when there is misconduct."