The six candidates for Montgomery County's Board of Education share one clearly defined goal: to make the school system work for every child, regardless of age, racial and economic background and ability. Where they differ, in some cases greatly, is in how they hope to accomplish it.

The issues that loom largest in this year's election are improving middle schools, closing the racial achievement gap, dealing with the concerns of special-needs students, easing crowding and continuing to improve elementary and high school education.

Three seats on the board are up for grabs Tuesday in the nonpartisan races: District 2, Rockville-Potomac; District 4, Silver Spring; and an at-large seat.

The Board of Education has one member from each of five districts, two at-large members and one student member, who is elected each spring by his or her peers. The district and at-large seats are elected by all voters in the county, no matter where the voters live. This is to ensure geographic diversity among board members while giving Montgomery residents the chance to vote on all candidates, said George H. Margolies, the staff director for the Board of Education. The District 5 representative, Henry Lee, resigned several weeks ago for personal reasons, and, under county policy, the three members elected Tuesday will help choose his replacement.

This year's candidates describe the election as a pivotal point in county education policy, the lead-in to a time when programs must be reinforced and supplemental ones added to ensure that the school district is best serving all of its members. They have campaigned on disparate platforms that call for a host of changes big and small -- in classrooms, in clusters and in the conduct of the board.

District 4: Valerie Ervin

Vs. Sheldon Fishman

The District 4 race can be seen less as a referendum on the past work of the board alongside Superintendent Jerry D. Weast than as a competition of ideas for the future.

The candidates are enthusiastic about Weast. They tend to agree with his sweeping vision of school improvement. But in this district race, the theme is independence: Neither candidate has served on the school board; both think the body ought to be less passive in its dealings with the superintendent and more creative in its solutions to long-standing problems.

Fishman, an Internet specialist for a District law firm, calls for more transparency and accountability on the part of the school board. His platform suggests hiring outside inspectors to evaluate school system programs and opening up the board to more participation from the community.

Fishman was patriarch of the Maryland PTA Family of the Year in 2001. He is a member of the independent Parents Alliance, an advocacy group with representatives from special-needs communities. At a time when the county is emphasizing standardization -- of curriculum, grading and instruction -- his campaign centers on a vision of more individualized instruction geared toward addressing the needs of a diverse student body. His motto: "One size does not fit all."

His opponent, Ervin, has a different view of how best to tailor education to individual students. Her plan calls for minimizing the labeling of students as "special needs" or "gifted," for example. She says this labeling leads to the overrepresentation of minorities in special education classes and their underrepresentation in gifted and talented programs.

Ervin is the chief of staff to County Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). She is a former president of her local PTSA and coordinated a school-to-work program for county students.

In her campaign, she has emphasized the problems of crowding and the need to better involve parents in their children's education. She said the work of the school board should be in "institutionalizing high expectations for all students."

District 2: Walter Lange

Vs. Stephen N. Abrams

The District 2 race is all about experience, with a former two-term member of the Board of Education challenging the incumbent. The candidates, who served together for two years, disagree on many issues, including the merits of countywide all-day kindergarten, a question on the ballot and on the conduct of the school board.

Lange, who has served since 2000, supports countywide all-day kindergarten -- required by the state in all schools by 2007 -- as a way of "making sure every child has a solid foundation." He said the biggest task facing the board is setting priorities and following through with its existing initiatives -- including efforts to narrow the achievement gap and plans to reevaluate middle school education.

Lange, who has been endorsed by prominent county Democrats, opposes Question A, a proposed charter amendment that would prevent the County Council from overriding the charter limit on property taxes, a move that some officials say could affect school spending. Abrams, a prominent Republican who served on the board from 1992 to 1996 and again from 1998 to 2002, supports the measure, saying it would make the board more accountable to all taxpayers, not just those with children in the school system.

Abrams opposes countywide all-day kindergarten, saying it taxes facilities without clearly benefiting all young people. He supports full-day instruction for special-needs students, including those from low-income families and those whose primary language is not English, for whom he says the program has clear and demonstrable benefits. A lawyer by training and a former City Council member in Rockville, Abrams also advocates encouraging private sector investment in public schools, particularly in the form of grants.

He said the board needs to pay more attention to successfully implementing the many initiatives it takes up, because "in order for these things to really work, they've got to be sustainable, even when people are clamoring for new fads."

In this contest, there are a few areas of agreement: Both men support the superintendent, though Abrams said he believes the board is too frequently in lock step with Weast's agenda. Both also seek to streamline and improve communication between the school district and special-education parents. And both say they will make priorities of improving the quality of education for middle school students.

At Large: Sharon W. Cox

Vs. Tommy Le

In this at-large race, Le, a Silver Spring engineer and minority advocate, is challenging one-term incumbent and board president Cox, of Germantown. The two candidates say there is a need to tie classroom education to the real world at the high school level, and both emphasize the importance of strong programs at the elementary level.

Le, who works for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, highlights five priorities for the school board: being more critical of the superintendent and the school system; making sure schools are spending money effectively and efficiently; redoubling efforts to improve education for the district's youngest students; increasing the quality of vocational and technical education; and modernizing school buildings.

Le said he is running for the board to help ensure Montgomery public schools are training students "to become better citizens of the future." To that end, he advocates considering the middle school years a critical checkpoint to make sure students have mastered the skills necessary to move on to high school. Cox also emphasizes the importance of middle school instruction and said one of the biggest tasks for the board will be to evaluate middle school data and begin to improve curricula and instruction countywide.

Cox, who served as board vice president in 2003, said she believes one of the challenges of the board in coming years will be to keep checking itself to make sure it's acting effectively in addition to thinking big.

She says the school system must devote attention and resources to all students who are diploma-bound, not just those who are college-bound. To that end, she emphasizes connecting classrooms to the real world; technology education; and working to improve the performance of typically underperforming students, including minorities and those with special needs or from low-income families.