Charter schools, pervasive in Washington but nonexistent in the District's suburbs, have become a topic for debate in the upcoming School Board election in Prince William County.

Last year, the board voted, 5 to 3, against taking applications for charter schools. All eight seats are on Tuesday's ballot, and seven of the eight races include at least one candidate who supports charter schools, raising the possibility that the board could reverse its policy next year.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run schools that are exempt from many school system regulations. Washington has opened 27 charter schools in the past three years, a movement fueled by parental dissatisfaction with existing public schools. But in Washington's suburbs, no local school board has approved a charter-school application.

In the Prince William School Board campaign, however, several candidates say the board's vote last year was closed-minded. The local Republican Party has championed charter schools, and GOP officials questioned board candidates closely about the topic before deciding on the party's endorsements in the election. The Prince William and Manassas Christian Coalition also has highlighted the issue by publishing the candidates' stands on charter schools in its voters guide.

Proponents of charter schools say that being exempt from many regulations allows the schools to offer innovative academic programs.

"I think they'll foster competition, and competition is always good," said Diane Tramel, a candidate for School Board in the Coles District. Incumbent John David Allen Sr., her opponent, voted against charter schools.

Steve Wassenberg, who is vying for the Occoquan District seat, said opening some charter schools also might be a way to relieve school crowding.

"We should accept the applications and let the quality of those applications determine if we in fact have a charter school program or not," Wassenberg said.

His opponent for the open seat, Keith Scarborough, is against charter schools.

On the other side, several candidates say that charter schools would only drain resources from public schools and that the school district already provides students with an array of choices.

They point to Prince William's policy of "site-based management," in which the principal and an advisory committee of parents at a school are given wide discretion in curriculum decisions. The county also has several "specialty schools" that emphasize certain subjects or careers and that accept transfers from outside the neighborhood if space is available.

"I think Prince William has done very well with site-based management," said incumbent Joan R. Ferlazzo (Dumfries), who opposes charter schools. "It's allowed some schools to really expand their horizons."

Ferlazzo is opposed by a write-in candidate, James V. Cech, who supports bringing charter schools to the county.

Board Chairman Lucy S. Beauchamp (At Large), who is running unopposed, said she would have been "negligent" if she hadn't pushed for last year's discussion on charter schools. But Beauchamp ultimately voted against allowing them, and she said she hasn't changed her mind.

"Right now, with site-based management, our schools can be structured any way that community and faculty wants," Beauchamp said. "You can't get much more of a charter school if you tried."

The debate in Prince William has been much stronger than elsewhere in Northern Virginia. The school boards in Fairfax and Loudoun counties have not even scheduled a vote on whether to allow charter schools, and the issue has seldom come up in their candidate forums.

Mark Rozell, a political science professor at Catholic University who has studied the Christian right movement in Virginia, said it's not surprising that the discussion is more intense in Prince William. Many in the religious right look favorably on charter schools as offering an educational alternative, Rozell said, and "there's a strong core of Christian social conservative activists in Prince William County."

In Maryland, a state law passed this year requires local school boards to at least take applications for charter schools, although the boards have broad power to turn down the applications.

Former Prince William School Board member Jay Bapple, who is home-schooling five of his 10 children, said he would consider sending them to a charter school if that option existed, particularly a school with more emphasis in basic language arts and math skills. Prince William's "specialty schools" are not an adequate alternative, Bapple said.

"You're still using the same cake batter, you're still making the same cake," he said. "This school system needs competition, and charter schools would do that."