The annual race for District parents to get their child into the public school of their choice begins tomorrow. The question is: Where's the starting line?

Until yesterday, parents seeking permission to send their children to a school outside their neighborhood had been told to follow a new procedure and submit out-of-boundary applications between Jan. 28 and Feb. 29 to one of four designated schools.

But yesterday, recovering from a blizzard and faced with a storm of criticism from parents who were angry about the new procedure, the school system told parents they can register the new way--or the old way.

The old way means parents can take applications to the school where they want to enroll their child.

"We decided to make it easy for parents and have them continue to register at their [preferred] school," said Deputy Superintendent Elois Brooks. Registration "now will be spread out among 147 schools as opposed to four schools."

In the past, parents wanting to enroll their children in out-of-boundary schools lined up outside those schools every October--sometimes camping out overnight--to sign them up. But this year, School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman centralized the process, arguing that this would control the clocking in of applicants and ensure compliance with the first-come, first-served rule.

She also changed the registration date from October to January, raising the prospect of hundreds of parents camping out overnight in frigid weather and swamping the designated schools. This week's snowstorm raised additional concerns about the ability of parents to get to the four schools--but yesterday's change of heart by school officials seemed to add to the anger.

"Parents and principals told them a month ago this was going to be a problem, and now they're changing it two days before," said Susan Gushue, head of DC Parents and Community for Education.

The four designated out-of-boundary registration sites, where parents can submit their top three school choices, are Jefferson Junior High School for schools in Wards 1 and 2; Wilson High School for schools in Wards 3 and 4; Spingarn Senior High School for schools in Wards 5 and 7; and Anacostia Senior High School for schools in Wards 6 and 8.

Officials at those four schools have been instructed to accept the applications, stamp them with the date and time submitted and forward them to school headquarters. The applications then will be sent to the principals at the schools where parents want to enroll their children, Brooks said.

Ward 1 resident Jeffrey S. Gutman camped out overnight in October and was number two in line to register his 4-year-old son at Eaton Elementary School in Ward 3. Two weeks ago, an Eaton official called to say the new procedure would require him to reapply at Wilson.

"I was upset I sort of lost my place for Eaton," Gutman said Tuesday while preparing to line up early again to re-register his son. But he was even more upset yesterday.

"This wreaks havoc with the first-come, first-served philosophy, because who's first?" Gutman said. "This makes things much more complicated administratively for them and potentially much more unfair for parents and students who tried to do something properly and were told at the last minute that there are these other options."

Jane M. Lincoln, who wants to enroll her two children in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten outside her Brookland neighborhood, said she and her husband are taking off work to make sure they get the schools of their choice. "We've got a babysitter, and I'll drive all over town to get my kids into a good school," she said.

What happens if one parent applies directly to the school of choice and another goes to a designated school and applies for the same school at the exact same time? "Our staff are trying to work that out," Brooks said. "It may be we have to go to a lottery."

She said schools do have other criteria to consider besides the date and time the application was submitted, including economic hardship, mental and physical disabilities, gross inconvenience to a family routine and unavailability of a specific course of study in the neighborhood school. As of 1995, 10,000 students, one in seven, were enrolled in schools outside their neighborhoods, according to a survey.

CAPTION: Jeffrey Gutman is concerned that the changes in the registration rules will cost son Benjamin a place in a pre-kindergarten program.

CAPTION: Benjamin Gutman laughs with parents Jeffrey S. Gutman and Stacy Brustin and little sister Julia Gutman. The family has been scrambling to enroll Benjamin for pre-kindergarten in a school outside their Mount Pleasant neighborhood.