The Virginia Education Association put out the word on its legislative hotline last Tuesday: Teachers dialing the toll-free number heard a taped message calling them to arms in the fight against a proposed $20 million cut in state aid to public schools.

On Wednesday, the battle over cuts in education shifted to another front. Gathering here for a meeting of their state association, Virginia's college and university presidents fanned out through the Capitol, buttonholing legislators and pleading for relief from a 6 percent reduction in state aid to higher education.

Gov. Charles S. Robb's proposal to cut more than $70 million from education programs next year has galvanized one of the state's most influential lobbies. In an election year legislators find it difficult to turn a deaf ear to teachers, parents, alumni, faculty and other groups assembled under the education umbrella.

This year the lobbyists' message is particularly succinct. Both the schools and the colleges want money restored to their budgets. And that puts the two ends of the educational spectrum in reluctant competition, as each argues its special claim to scarce state dollars.

"It's a sad thing, but we are both going after the same bucks," said education association lobbyist Richard Pulley. "I wish the colleges well. I hope they get all the money they need. I just hope it is not at our expense."

Robb has said that the reduction in state aid to public schools was the most painful in the package of budget cuts he proposed two weeks ago to fend off a projected $175 million deficit. Judging from the initial reaction in the General Assembly, aid to education will be the first place where money will be restored if new funds are unearthed during the legislative session.

"I am very pleased to see an almost universal desire to restore that funding when and if it becomes available," said Robb at a news conference last Friday. So far, no one has been able to pinpoint where any extra money might be found, but many are counting on the legislature's fiscal experts to come up with something.

"We may be able to find some money," said Senate Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) in a cryptic comment Friday.

Restoring the cuts in public school aid would help Robb to keep promises made a year ago. In his inaugural speech, he touted education as the top priority of his administration and in the course of last year's session, he was able to shift enough money into school aid to help boost classroom teachers' salaries 10 percent for two years in a row.

With his proposed $20 million cut, Robb has revised the promised salary increase downward from 10 percent to 6.3 percent for next year. That still leaves schools with a considerable increase in state aid, an estimated $80 million over this year. But it means that Virginia, which moved from 34th to 31st in the nation in average teacher's salaries this year, will not make the gains that Robb and the Virginia Education Association had hoped.

The colleges, meanwhile, have a different argument and a different set of allies. At hearings last week, Education Secretary John Casteen was beset by criticism from a key legislator who charged the administration with wielding a meat ax on higher education.

"Higher education is simply taking the biggest lumps," said Del. L. Cleaves Manning (D-Portsmouth), chairman of the Appropriations submcommittee on higher education. "It is getting hit every which way. I don't know if the institutions can live with it."

Unlike the public schools, Virginia's 39 state-supported colleges had to cut their budgets 5 percent last spring when Robb first learned the state was heading for a deficit. Of the estimated $50 million saved by state agencies in that first round of cuts, slightly more than half came out of higher education, according to the education department.

Next year's proposed 6 percent would be spread further, extending to various categories of state aid to local governments. In this round, higher education would be cut$35.4 million, a figure that does not include the $15.5 million that will be saved with a freeze on faculty salaries.

To make it through the first round of cuts, Northern Virginia Community College dropped 17 faculty positions through attrition and hiked tuition 45 percent. College administrators told the Appropriations Committee last week that the cuts meant some students had to be turned away from popular word-processing and business courses.

At George Mason University, the state's fastest growing four-year university, the initial 5 percent cuts translated into an 8 percent cut in nonpersonnel costs this year, delays in filling nonfaculty positions, and other cost-saving measures.

"Because we've been in a growth position for several years, we are always, therefore, growing out of the clothes that fit us last year and that makes more demands on the Commonwealth," said George Mason president George Johnson. "So when we get cut it hurts a lot, but then it hurts everybody."

At the University of Virginia, the state's flagship institution and alma mater for many legislators, the cry for help has been even more dramatic. Speaking to the Board of Visitors Friday, university president Frank Hereford warned that the proposed budget cuts may "destroy the development of the past 15 years" in the state's higher education.

In those years, UVA has become "a place of excellence," said Hereford. "We could stand to lose all that in the next two years."

The colleges' main argument is that higher education has shouldered an unfair share of the cuts. They point out that Robb has held the proposed cuts at the state prisons next year to only 3 percent. But college officials have been careful not to criticize the relatively small size of the $20 million cut in public school aid, which amounts to only 3.5 percent of the schools' total program.

"For us to fight the teachers would be to spit in our own soup," said one college president.

Privately, however, some college spokesmen grumble that public school teachers got special treatment. In Northern Virginia, faculty members at the Northern Virginia Community College now are paid less than Fairfax School teachers. If the freeze on faculty salaries remains in effect, the disparity will grow.

Public school teachers do not dispute that they have been spared much of the belt-tightening in state government. But they argue that, compared with higher education, they had more ground to make up.

"We feel we have taken a back seat over the years, while they have done proportionately better," said Pulley, "We don't feel guilty, because we didn't get the same cuts."

While Virginia teachers' salaries were falling in the national rankings, from 24th in 1972 to 34th in 1981, according to National Education Association figures, the colleges were getting better treatment.

In 1981, Virginia ranked 10th in the 50 states in total state appropriations for higher education, 26th in per capita appropriations, and 12th in funding increases over the previous ten years.

There are other concerns in the education community besides the demands of the teachers and the colleges.

Rural school districts, for example, are worried that the proposed 18-month freeze on school construction loans from the state Literary Fund, which will save the state$53 million, will delay the building of new school houses perhaps indefinitely.

"All of education . . . received a higher percentage of cuts than the rest of the budget," said Andrews. "But the first thing we have to do is identify sources of new money. Then we'll see where we can make any additions."