RICHMOND -- Virginia's ban on elected school boards -- reaffirmed year after year by the General Assembly despite petitions from several Northern Virginia and Tidewater jurisdictions -- may crumble in this year's session.

A crucial test of a proposal to allow elected boards in Virginia -- the only state that does not permit them -- is scheduled for Tuesday, when hundreds are expected at a Senate panel's public hearing. The debate promises to pit those who contend that elected boards are by definition more accountable and democratic against those who say the current system works well and doesn't need changing.

"If they don't represent my views, and if they don't do what is in the best interest of my child, I {want to} have a mechanism where I can change the way the system runs," argued James Murphy, a Fairfax County parent who has crusaded for elected boards on behalf of the county's 190 PTAs.

But others prefer the status quo. "No one has shown a compelling reason to change it," said Frank Barham, director of the Virginia School Boards Association. "The bottom line is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The current bill, sponsored by Del. David G. Brickley (D-Woodbridge), passed the House last month and faces a tough fight in the Senate. It would allow voters in Northern Virginia and some Tidewater localities to decide next year whether to elect school boards, beginning in 1994. In Virginia, school boards are appointed, some by county boards or city councils and some, in some rural counties, by commissions appointed by judges.

Even supporters of the status quo acknowledge that Virginia's unique system was born of a desire to keep blacks and Republicans from getting seats on school boards. Arlington County, the one locality in Virginia that once had an elected school board, had the privilege revoked by the General Assembly in 1956 when board members declined to resist a court order to integrate county classrooms.

Long after most Virginia leaders and voters have abandoned their views about keeping blacks out of government, appointed school boards continue with a momentum of their own, and even some black and progressive legislators say they see little reason to change the system.

The heart of the modern debate is not race, but accountability. Supporters of Brickley's bill say it is wrong to have educational issues of paramount interest to parents decided by people who aren't hired and fired at the polls.

Fairfax County's Murphy said about 18,000 signatures in favor of elected boards have been collected from across Northern Virginia on a petition that will be presented to the Senate panel.

But many legislators and educators said the issue isn't as simple as many parents imagine. Unless school boards are given autonomous taxing power -- that would require a state constitutional amendment and isn't likely to happen any time soon -- they see potential for demagoguery and for lines of responsibility becoming even more blurred than now. An elected school board, for example, could pass expensive programs knowing full well that supervisors might not approve taxes needed to pay for them.

Some also fear that school board elections would be dominated by single-issue groups -- concerned solely with stopping sex education, for example, or with firing a principal.

"You're better off having appointed boards because it really keeps politics out," said C. Carroll Laycock Jr., chairman of the Loudoun County School Board. "You don't have to worry about counting votes."

"If you don't think school boards are political now, you're naive," countered Madeline Wade, president of the Virginia Education Association, which represents 43,000 state teachers and supports elected boards.

Some of the most confusing issues in local politics arise when an appointed school board member disagrees with the politician who appointed him or her.

For instance, two years ago Prince William Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) called for the resignation of W. Shapard Elmore when they disagreed over how to redraw school boundaries.

Elmore, who had become unpopular in Woodbridge because of his boundary vote, refused to step down.

Loudoun County resident Susan Hoffmann said her enthusiasm for elected boards rose this year after the school board there fired Superintendent David Thomas, who was criticized as having a prickly personality but whose policies Hoffmann supported. "It really brings to light how they're not accountable to us," she said.

At the moment, the proposal under consideration in Richmond would permit elected school boards in the counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William and York, and the cities of Newport News and Virginia Beach. Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun) said that if the bill stays alive in the Senate, he will fight to have Loudoun County added. If passed, the bill would allow local residents to petition for a referendum on the question in 1992 and to elect the first school board members in 1994.

In the 1989 campaign, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder endorsed giving localities the option of electing school boards, though he has not taken a formal position on Brickley's bill.

Race, for the most part, has been absent from this year's debate. Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth), a black legislator, argued against Brickley's bill in committee because, he said, more minorities have been named to appointed school boards than have been elected to local government positions.

An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit two years ago seeking to overturn appointed school boards as discriminatory was unsuccessful. Still, many people can't divorce the issue from its history.

In Arlington County, "there is still lingering resentment and bitterness" at the assembly's decision three decades ago to disallow elected school boards, said Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington).

Brickley argues that democracy is better than its absence as a matter of principle. And he said the rising strength of Northern Virginia and other suburban areas -- where elected school boards have strongest support -- makes it inevitable that the legislature will eventually overcome its "fear of the unknown" and pass his bill.

Suburban areas will pick up even greater clout once legislative districts are redrawn to reflect population shifts from the 1990 Census. "If it doesn't pass this year," Brickley predicted, "it's got an outstanding chance next year after redistricting."