At every door they knock on, and in every poll they do, Virginia's legislative candidates are hearing the same news: Education is the voters' top concern. If either political party could find an edge on the issue, control of the General Assembly might be the reward.

So the candidates are talking about schools--about hiring more teachers, shrinking classes, fine-tuning the Standards of Learning (SOL) tests and getting rid of classroom trailers, which have become political shorthand for crowding and the strains of growth in Northern Virginia.

But it takes a careful ear for voters to distinguish between the messages being delivered by the two major parties.

"They are all talking like they are Republicans," GOP strategist Ray Allen says of the Democrats.

The GOP has "taken a page out of our playbook," says Democratic strategist Michael Henry.

All 140 legislative seats are up for election Nov. 2, and Republicans could take control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century.

The parties' similar education platforms have frustrated some activists who were hoping for sharper debate, particularly about the SOL exams--taken in third, fifth and eighth grade and high school to measure student and school performance--whose low scores have many parents and educators worried.

"I am extremely disappointed with the lack of debate," said Robert Whiteman, vice president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "People don't seem to be focusing on the real funding needs . . . and on the real issue of the SOLs: Why, after two rounds of tests, have we not seen the kind of improvement we should be seeing?"

Some differences on education are emerging, but in shades of gray. Democrats tend to be more critical of the current state of the SOL program, though they are careful to back "standards." Republicans are calling for more new teachers than are Democrats. Democrats are focusing more on school safety, Republicans more on discipline.

The split is clear in the battle between state Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax) and Democratic challenger Leslie L. Byrne, a former congresswoman.

As chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, Woods has overseen implementation of the SOLs and has a lead role in trying to improve them. Like many, she contends that the social studies tests and some others are too focused on trivia rather than concepts.

"I know they're not perfect," said Woods. "We need to be testing on the big picture."

Byrne is calling for a major overhaul of the exams and a shift away from a testing philosophy she calls "punitive." She argues that poor test scores could drive marginal students to drop out, and advocates dropping the SOLs as a graduation requirement in some cases, particularly if a student is doing well otherwise.

"When they talk about fine-tuning, I say, call for Mr. Goodwrench," Byrne says. "I think we should stop punishing people and make schools better."

Most Democratic candidates are not nearly as outspoken on that issue. Democrats led the criticisms of the SOLs after Gov. George Allen (R) proposed them in 1994. Yet now, leaders of both parties say polls show most voters support the idea higher standards, even if they worry that some of the current tests are off the mark.

"I'm assuring people that I'm absolutely monitoring" the SOLs, says Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), who's running for the seat of retiring Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D). But she adds, "if they're made to work right, they're a very good idea, raising standards."

Democrat Kristen J. Amundson, a Fairfax School Board member seeking Puller's House seat, says, "People want accountability, but they want tests that accurately reflect what people think third-graders or fifth-graders should know."

While Democrats have moved toward the GOP position on SOLs, Republicans are sounding increasingly like Democrats on the issue of school construction money.

In the 1998 session, Democrats fought successfully for school construction money in exchange for approving a plan by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) to gradually eliminate the car tax. This year, when Gilmore proposed sending state lottery profits back to school districts, the Democrats won their fight to have half the funds earmarked for school construction, computers and related needs.

Now as the election nears, Republicans are campaigning on the importance of school construction money as much as Democrats.

"The state must . . . focus in on getting rid of these trailers behind these schools," says Republican Scott T. Klein, who's also running for Puller's House seat. "That is a state responsibility."

Both parties are pushing to have the lottery money permanently dedicated to school needs. Both also advocate hiring more teachers. Some Democrats in recent legislative sessions resisted a proposal by Gilmore to hire 4,000 new elementary school teachers, arguing the state should build more classrooms first. But in this campaign, the Democrats have met Republicans halfway, pushing a plan for 2,000 new teachers.

Distinctions have emerged on the subject of school safety. Democrats are seizing on a vote this year in which several Northern Virginia Republicans supported a Gilmore proposal to allow student hunters to take their guns to school as long as the weapons remained locked in cars. Some of the GOP members changed their votes that same day, killing the idea.

Many Republicans want tougher discipline in schools. Klein, for example, says the state should look at additional legal tools teachers can use to keep unruly students out of their classrooms.

There has been virtual silence among Republicans and Democrats on vouchers for private schools, a heated issue nationally. Some Democrats suggest that a GOP majority in the General Assembly would encourage Gilmore to propose vouchers or tuition tax credits, but they say GOP candidates won't talk about it for fear of creating a voter backlash.

"The governor does not have a secret plan" to push for vouchers after the election, says Gilmore spokesman Mark Miner. Even with a Republican majority, Gilmore would have a hard time winning such a fight because he could not claim to have a mandate from voters on the issue, GOP strategists say.

In the Manassas area, Republican Robert S. FitzSimmonds III has broken with most other Northern Virginia GOP candidates by pushing for a plan that would provide up to $3,000 in tax credits for every child that a family took out of public schools. He is challenging state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William).

FitzSimmonds says his plan would help parents who want to home-school their children or send them to private schools. And, he says, it would help public schools by lowering enrollment and freeing up resources.

"It's a great idea," said FitzSimmonds, who is frustrated more candidates aren't pushing it. "I think people are avoiding it because they're afraid of stuff like this. They're afraid of the education establishment."

Colgan says tax credits are not a popular campaign issue mainly because of their cost. "I'm just absolutely opposed to it because it's going to drain money away from the public schools," he says.

Such sharp contrasts are the exception this year. And some educators and politicians say that the agreement on education issues is healthy.

Republican Daniel F. Rinzel, who is battling Puller for Gartlan's Senate seat, said both parties know what the schools need: more teachers, fewer trailers, higher standards.

"Maybe there's some hope that we will get away from the political posturing and do what's best for schools," Rinzel said.