For the last seven years, Levon and Laura Bowie have lived in a decaying and graffiti-scarred apartment building on Stanton Road SE. They could afford a better home, they say, but the money they save on rent helps pay tuition, $106 a month, for their two children at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School nearby.

A good education, says Laura Bowie, is the only way her children will be able to leave their present neighborhood on one of the tough streets of Anacostia and move across the river into the other Washington.

"I tell my kids," says Bowie, " 'I want you to be able to speak good grammar. I don't want you to have to think, "Am I right?" when you speak, I want you to know you are right.' "

Laura Bowie is leery about the education tax credit initiative on next Tuesday's city election ballot. But, if the measure were approved, Bowie, whose family income is about $18,000 a year, would be able to claim $954 in tuition expenses alone -- enough to virtually nullify her D.C. tax liability and ease the financial burden of her dream of a better life for her children.

"If it is going to hurt public schools, then I wouldn't want that," says Bowie. "But I don't want to send my kids there. I want better for mine. But just because the lady next door can't afford to send her kids to Catholic schools, I wouldn't want to jeopardize her kids' future either."

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Bowie says.

Her dilemma is shared by many in this city, where the tax credit proposal has thrust an economic factor into the already emotional debate about how children are educated in the nation's capital.

In a political contest where there are no major candidates and where much of the campaigning is being done through 11th-hour media advertisements, the tax credit proposal has transformed a school board campaign of usually limited interest into a major referendum on public education with national implications.

It also has forced many to chose between their pocketbooks and their commitment to public education -- a very personal decision that some voters say will be made only in the privacy of a voting booth, when they punch "yes" or "no" on Initiative No. 7.

Paul and Anita Kuzio say they have paid the equivalent of 48 years of tuition at private schools. A son and two daughters graduated from Catholic schools here. The youngest daughter, Ann Michelle, just started school at St. Ann's School near Tenley Circle NW.

All of their children have been achievers, Kuzio says, partly because in private schools they were pitted against pupils who were more than their peers.

"Paul Jr., he won a gold medal in high school for analytical geometry. My Diane got straight A's except for one B-plus the last year of her college, and Holly was on the dean's honor roll seven straight semesters," says Kuzio.

"I've watched the children in this neighborhood and there is no comparison of kids who went to private and public schools," Kuzio continues. "There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of children in this neighborhood who went to private schools did very well. The ones who didn't became technicians."

The Kuzios came to Washington 41 years ago from Pennsylvania. An engineer by training and a contractor by trade, Kuzio operates his own business, dealing mostly in federal contracts. They live in a roomy Tudor-style house on Van Ness Street NW.

"You bet we plan to vote for it," Kuzio says of the tax credit. "Its time has come. The public school system has to be challenged and now it is. Citizens are saying to the school board, teachers and everyone else, 'Look, you've done a lousy job, and we want more for our money!' "

To Kuzio, it seems relatively simple. To him, public schools are hopeless. There is no discipline. Drugs are a problem. Many teachers are more concerned about paychecks and union dues than students, and the school board is lousy. What public schools here need is a jolt of competition, Kuzio concludes, and that is exactly what he believes the tax credit will do.

"I don't care if it's your schools, business or what it is, competition makes it better and that's all the little guy is after: a real choice. That's what this movement is all about.

"Every American has the right to educate his child as he sees fit," Kuzio continues. "And he shouldn't have to pay double taxation for that privilege. If the public schools can't do it, then he should be able to find somewhere else that can."

Kuzio said that better educated children -- those educated at private schools -- pull more than their weight in society. "What they contribute in the long run in taxes alone more than offsets any payments now."

Paul Kuzio is sold on the idea of private education. "If we had to depend on the kids coming out of public school to run our government and to become professionals . . . " he says, "we would be in sorry shape."

Ed Bradford likes to think of himself as a complete product of Washington schools: Park View Elementary, Banneker Junior High, Roosevelt High School, Howard University and finally American University, where he earned a master's degree in education. He is a program analyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Bradford, 36, says he got a good public school education here, and he considers himself a loyal, native Washingtonian. After all, he moved into a renovated row house near Eighth and P Streets NW, near one of Washington's drug-selling areas rather than flee to Prince George's County as some of his friends did.

The tax credit proposal irritates him, he says. "There is a myth that private education is good education and public education is either bad or mediocre," says Bradford. "Public education can be good, not always, but it can be."

The problem with the tax credit is that it skirts the real issue, continues Bradford, who is single, childless and opposed to the measure. "If publicly financed schools are not educating children, the question should be why? -- not whether to indirectly finance private schools.

"There is a constitutional right to public education -- a child is entitled to that right," says Bradford. " But if I decide I want an alternative to what is provided for me as a taxpayer, then the burden is on me to provide the financial resources."

Last year, when Pat Johnson was president of the Home and School Association at Murch Elementary School at 36th and Ellicott streets NW, a disturbing rumor sped through the neighborhood: Scores of parents were going to move their children from Murch to private schools.

"It was like the Wall Street crash," Johnson recalls.

The association scampered to take a survey and were relieved: Only 29 children were being taken out. "That's all, just 29," Johnson says. There were 430 students in the school at the time.

The number of withdrawals was much lower than rumored, but the reasons cited by the parents whose children were leaving went to the core of concerns that Johnson's family and others share about their neighborhood school.

The biggest reason cited for leaving was frustration, Johnson recalls.

"There are things in the system that you can't control or can't rely on," explains Johnson, whose three sons -- Christopher, 9, Todd, 8, and Shawn, 5 -- are enrolled at Murch. "If you feel somewhat assured that your kid is going to get a decent teacher and there will be a decent ratio, then you stay. Come fall and you realize there are 40 kids in the class, what then?

"Parents worry about that. They worry what surprise might surprise them next fall, and whether city coffers will have enough money for the kinds of educational programs we want."

"Sometimes parents just get tired of having to fight that lack of control and the guesswork of it all," she says.

Thomas Johnson, 39, grew up in Rochelle, Ill., about an hour's drive from Chicago, and was educated in public schools. Pat Johnson, 36, grew up in Appleton, Wis., where she attended parochial school. Both have master's degrees from the University of Chicago, a prestigious private university.

Their children's school, Murch, is one of the handful of predominantly white public schools in Washington. It also is one of those where student scores on national standardized tests are among the highest in the city, and where home and school associations are the strongest and best financed of any in the District.

Proponents of the tax credit expected strong support in neighborhoods like the Johnsons', but that has not been the case, according to early telephone canvassing. The Johnsons are part of the explanation.

"The idea of private education seems an anathema to me," says Thomas Johnson. "I expect public education to provide a good education for my children."

The Johnsons could afford to send their boys to a private school, and if they did and the initiative were approved, the family would qualify for the full $1,200-per-pupil credit. Or, Johnson could give at the office, and deduct any school costs from the D.C. taxes paid by the management consulting firm he owns.

But the Johnsons plan to keep their children in public schools, and say they plan to vote against the tax credit initiative.

"It would pull education in this town down considerably and that would force many parents to move to private schools. Getting rid of us is really going to hurt because we're in there pulling and tugging to keep the education system accountable and good," Pat Johnson says.

"How did America get where it is now if not for public education?" asks her husband.

If the measure were approved, Thomas Johnson says, he would claim credit for his public school expenses -- but he thinks those would amount to little more than locker fees. Even so, the proposition does not make financial sense, he says, because the money lost to educational tax credits would most likely be regained through higher property taxes.

Besides, he says, private schools would raise tuitions because of increased demand. "No headmaster in his right mind is not going to raise tuition when this thing goes through, and then where does that leave everyone?" Johnson says. "Most well-to-do people probably have tax shelters anyway."

Pat Johnson adds, "I think a lot of people in this city have a social conscience, and they really feel strongly that it is a measure that is going to hurt people who can't afford to be hurt again."

Ishmael Kelley says the tax credit proposal is "the work of a bunch of religious fanatics and racist people."

"There is a movement afoot in this country to get back to the fundamentals," says Kelley. "They say let us return to what made this country great, the values, etc."

But what these people want, Kelley continues, is to set up a tax write-off system that will allow them to form their own private schools where they can teach that "Eve came out of Adam's rib" and "protect little blue-eyed Susie from that little black boy who's smoking dope and who's got low morals and ain't the same religious sect as mother."

"There is a reason these outsiders chose the District," interjects Marlene Kelley, a physician for the D.C. Department of Human Services. "They know they would have a good chance of passage here because there are so many private schools and high incomes. They also know that the District is predominantly black. If they can sell it here, then they can claim it isn't racially motivated 'cause D.C. passed it."

Ishmael Kelley jumps up and points to an oval photograph of his father, Silas, perched on the mantel in their home in the 6000 block of Piney Branch Road NW, which doubles as Kelley's life insurance office.

"This man instilled in me a respect for education. He started a private school in Mississippi because black children couldn't get any education back then. Now these people want private schools to keep others out."

The Kelleys don't believe public schools here are so bad. But they decided to send their children to private schools because they want them to be able to get into good colleges. So, both of their children attend schools in Bethesda -- son, John, 14, at Landon School, and daughter, Josette, 12, at Holton-Arms School.

Even so, the Kelleys say, they are concerned about D.C. public schools. In the District, 95 percent of the children in public schools are black and for many black children, public education is the only education available, they explain.

"That's who's going to suffer if this passes," says Ishmael. "Even if this passed, I wouldn't take the credit even though I spend $10,000 a year sending my children to private schools. And I'd damn anyone who did take it."

Sometimes Phillip Bowie, 12, complains that his mother, Laura, is too strict when it comes to homework. There's a reason. She dropped out of high school when she was a teen-ager. "I was bored with it all," she remembers. "I don't want that to happen to him."

Laura Bowie returned to school later. She received her diploma and now is taking college courses in night school. She works as a supervisor of computer programmers for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Her English teacher is the same nun who teaches Phillip at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School.

"I envy people who have a good education," she says. "I just love WDVM-TV anchorwoman J.C. Hayward."

Education is the ticket out, she told her daughter Tulisa, 14, when the girl came home crying one day because other kids in the neighborhood called her a "little white girl" because she goes to a Catholic school. She told the same thing to Phillip when his buddies made fun of him for wearing a tie to school.

"I always felt I had potential, but no one helped me," says Laura Bowie. She saw the same thing happening to her children in public school, she says. "It was open space. You see your buddy over there, you yell, 'Hey, how you doing.' The teacher didn't have any control over the kids whatsoever.

"So I took them out, and my daughter, she made first honor. I remember going up to the school and looking on the board under second honor and I said, 'Tulisa, where is your name,' 'cause I knew she was getting A's. She says, 'It's over here, mama, on the first honor board."

"Lord," says Bowie. "I was so proud.

"This credit, it could really help. But I don't want to hurt no one else, so I don't know what I'll do. If it passed, I'd take it, but I don't know if I want to jump up and say, "I'm for it.

"I just know my kids are going to stay in private schools, no matter what."