To people who care about education, the available evidence on William Donald Schaefer was grim.

During his 16 years as mayor of Baltimore, the school system of his city languished with too many dropouts, too few textbooks, ill-paid teachers and one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the nation.

"He was an activist mayor, but he was not known for his activism in education," recalled Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery), who leads the House Appropriations Committee's education subcommittee.

But during his first weeks in the State House, the governor proved a surprise. He announced that the state's schools were shortchanged, and he persuaded the 1987 General Assembly to supply them with $10 million more than local educators were expecting.

By the end of his first year, Schaefer had done two other startling things: He had assigned one of his most trusted friends, Baltimore developer Walter Sondheim, to look into the quality of Maryland's schools; and he had become the prime lobbyist for reshaping the state's mediocre university system, a chore that politicians had skirted for years.

Now that he is finishing his first term, Schaefer has, despite a career-long preference for business matters over social concerns, emerged as an "education governor." According to many Maryland educators and politicians, he has focused money, attention and pressure to improve the state's colleges and schools.

"He has been the most pro-education governor in the last 20 years," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore), who teaches math at New Community College of Baltimore.

That is not to say Schaefer and educators always see eye-to-eye.

He was defeated on a plan to build a residential math-science high school. He feuded with the Maryland State Board of Education over its choice of a state school superintendent. And he has made some educators jittery with his tendency to install activist corporate executives in key state education roles.

Assuming he defeats Republican challenger William S. Shepard in the Nov. 6 election, Schaefer may find educational successes more elusive. As Maryland veers toward a recession, he must choose whether to fulfill big, planned increases in school subsidies and whether to meet universities' raised expectations for state aid.

The governor also will have to decide whether the state can afford expensive proposals to raise the legal dropout age to 18, create more preschool classes and extend the school year by 20 days, all innovations he has praised.

Perhaps most difficult, the governor is running headlong into an issue that has provoked lawsuits and political strife in other states: disparities in the money available to schools in poor areas, such as Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, and those in wealthier places, such as Montgomery and Howard counties.

"The next four years are going to be trying ones for the governor," said state Sen. John N. Bambacus (R), a political scientist who teaches at Frostburg State University. But he said Schaefer's record "will stand historical scrutiny. I really mean that, even though people might not want to hear it."

That record is, in many ways, an odd turn of events. "Don Schaefer is absolutely not an intellectual," said one Maryland higher education leader. "He doesn't know very much about higher education, he is not very comfortable with academics and academic work does not interest him per se."

The governor, perennially fond of new ideas, virtually admits as much. "There is no flexibility in many educators," he said last week.

"It's an anomolous situation," said Michael Cohen, until recently the director of education programs for the National Governors' Association. "If you were to sit down and say, 'Who are the education governors in the country?' his name would not come up, but he's a guy who has done a fair amount in education."

Schaefer's focus on schools and colleges does not, most agree, reflect much change in his business-first world view. "Is education a means to a better business environment? The answer is yes," said Bethesda lawyer Lawrence A. Shulman, who had differences with Schaefer as a former president of the state's school board. "If you didn't need education for that, would it be important for him? I don't know."

"His public pronouncements really have been rather narrowly focused on universities as engines of the economy, as opposed to citadels of culture or transmitters of knowledge," said Richard P. Chait, director of the National Center for Postsecondary Governance and Finance at the University of Maryland at College Park.

To an unusual degree, Schaefer has picked business executives, many from his native Baltimore, for education commissions and for the boards that oversee the state's colleges and schools.

This pattern is viewed as doubled-edged. On one hand, the fact that he has turned to such old friends has improved rapport between education and industry and "shows these are very important appointments to him," Kopp said.

On the other hand, as executives have plunged into the world of education, "there is a whole new vocabulary, a tremendous need to be {brought} up to speed," said Susan Buswell, a former Howard County legislator who directs the Maryland Association of Boards of Education.

Schaefer and his appointees, some educators believe, also have transgressed the bounds between a state's government and its universities and public schools.

Early on, Schaefer made what is widely viewed as a clumsy attempt to help the troubled Baltimore schools by bringing in national consultants, a plan seen as an attempt by the state to meddle in local school affairs.

In 1988, when the state school board appointed Joseph L. Shilling as Maryland's school superintendent, Schaefer became so angry that he persuaded the legislature to enlarge the board, and installed his own appointees.

But Shilling and the governor have become allies, and the new board has proved aggressive. They have endorsed a rare accreditation system that will give the state Education Department the power to take over "failing" schools. The board will begin issuing "report cards" on the school systems next month and has ordered new standardized tests for next spring.

As governors go, Schaefer has devoted an unusual share of his attention to higher education.

In 1988, he pushed through the General Assembly difficult legislation that unified most of the state's four-year colleges and universities into a single University of Maryland system. "People had been screaming about that for 20 years, and he did it," Bambacus said.

And Schaefer accompanied the reorganization with an unprecedented infusion of cash. Since 1988, state subsidies to higher education have grown by 44 percent, while the overall state budget has increased by 29 percent. Aid to the flagship campus in College Park rose by nearly 50 percent and the state has nearly doubled its investment in its historically small scholarship programs.

When he talks about the importance of education, the governor sounds like the populist that he is. "I have seen with my own eyes the people who haven't been educated," he said last week. "I didn't see it in a textbook. I saw it in my neighborhood. I saw kids fall down."

The question, others say, is how long such images remain in focus for a governor noted for a brief attention span.

"My concern over the next four years is whether we can stick it out," Kopp said. "We have to sustain the attention and support for a number of years -- including his. That is a tough test of people who are used to demanding immediate results."