BECAUSE IT MAY not readily occur to District of Columbia voters -- and because we consider it of great importance to everyone who lives in the city or cares about the next generation that will -- be advised that a critical election campaign is getting under way here. Even if you do not have any children in the city's public schools, there are strong reasons for paying attention to the school board elections this Nov. 5. Collectively, the results could be the difference between still more improvements in public education and a dreadful reversion to the kind of showboat politicking that cheated a generation of kids in this city's classrooms.

Since the election two years ago, the board has evolved into a generally constructive, low-profile body, offering solid support to a fine superintendent, Floretta McKenzie. This isn't to say every incumbent candidate deserves automatic reelection, however. The campaigns to come afford a chance for close reviews of which current members have the understanding and ability to work together for schoolchildren of all colors and neighborhoods -- and which still prefer rhetorical cheap shots and confrontation.

How much homework is involved? Start by reading up on the elections to come, now that the petition-filing deadline has passed. Find out if you are eligible -- the elections board has its act together these days -- and whether your ward is voting only for two citywide members or for a ward representative as well. If you can't take in a convenient candidates' forum, ask someone you respect for guidance on what to look for in the way of issues and personalities.

Be on the lookout for potential as well as established turkeys, small-time politicians, opportunists craving attention, racists and demagogues. They have been known to win elections here because nobody looked at them all that carefully when they ran, and because too many people didn't care enough to vote.

Besides two at-large seats, there are elections for representatives from Wards 2, 3 and 8 this year. Only in Ward 3 is the incumbent, Wanda Washburn, unchallenged. Who among the five incumbents should stay and who should go? We have some thoughts, but there is more to read and watch and share in this space as the campaigns unfold. The danger at this point is the possibility of voter neglect. The recent progress in this city's classrooms -- and the possibilities of an even better school board for the next two years -- are too good to forfeit.