Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) issued his strongest statement to date in favor of creating a school voucher plan, saying today that a statewide program could give parents more choice about where to educate their children.

"If we can put forward a voucher plan that is going to help education for kids generally, then it's something we ought to consider," Gilmore said during a monthly radio call-in show here.

While reaffirming his support for public schools, he said parents should have options to home-school their children or perhaps get support in sending them to private school.

During his 1997 gubernatorial campaign, Gilmore expressed a willingness to consider school vouchers, but his comments this morning were his most emphatic on the issue of educational choice, coming less than six months before General Assembly elections that could tilt the balance of legislative power in his favor.

While the legislature has frustrated school-choice plans offered so far, a GOP-controlled assembly could give the governor the power to craft a school voucher program.

Proposals for publicly financed vouchers and tuition tax credits to help send children to private or parochial schools are being hotly debated across the country. Gilmore cited the recent success of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in pushing through the first statewide voucher plan in the nation.

Under Florida's plan, students at schools that twice receive failing marks on an annual statewide test and other performance measures will be able to enroll at public expense in another public, nonsectarian private or religious school. Gilmore is a strong advocate of Virginia's new Standards of Learning program, which uses standardized tests to measure the performance of schools, as well as their students.

But the governor did not endorse any specific voucher plan for Virginia.

"Everything's on the table as we go forward," the governor said. "There's a whole group of people -- and I'm sympathetic to 'em -- who think that there ought to be some more choices for people."

Gilmore's remarks drew a swift reaction from public school teachers groups, which say that any tax subsidy that effectively takes students out of public schools will hurt public education over time.

"When you create this system of vouchers, you take money away from the public schools," said Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the Washington-based National Education Association, a union representing 2.4 million teachers and support workers across the country.

"Forcing public schools to compete with fewer resources is extremely dangerous," Wollmer said.

Gilmore disagreed with that notion, saying: "I don't think we ought to be letting unionism get in the way of what's in the best interest for our kids."

He added: "We are in favor of public schools and making sure that they're good. But I think the challenge . . . that we're struggling with here is how to make the schools the very best that they can be and to give some opportunities for some people to make some choices" about schooling for their children.

Gilmore did his radio show two days before he leaves on the first trade mission to South America by a sitting Virginia governor. With his 13-day journey to Brazil, Chile and Argentina, Gilmore hopes particularly to promote the state's coal and high-technology industries, he said.

"We have strengths that other states do not," Gilmore said.

Thirty business officials will accompany Gilmore on the mission, among them several from Northern Virginia and Washington. According to the governor's office, they include Norman P. Byers, president of Carpe Diem Group International of McLean; Bill Robinette, president of Chantilly-based Envipco, and Herb Radford, the company's international marketing officer; Ronald D. Wright, president of Neurosoft Inc. of Sterling; and Jimmie V. Reyna, a Washington lawyer specializing in an international practice.