For years, Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper has been on the cutting edge of public school reform, spearheading a drive to end the practice of promoting students who cannot read or write and to weed out incompetent teachers.

But in his rush to put all his reforms in place before leaving office, the two-term Democrat has touched off a major uproar in this tiny mid-Atlantic state, leaving some parents fearing that their children will be held back, many teachers worried that they may lose their jobs and administrators upset that Carper had usurped their authority.

As Carper's experience demonstrates, the politics of school reform are potentially treacherous for politicians. An energetic chief executive and former U.S. House member, Carper recently launched a campaign to try to unseat veteran Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R), chairman of the Finance Committee and one of the longest-serving politicians in the state's history.

The contest is considered crucial to Senate Democrats' hopes of regaining the majority this November, and many analysts predict it will be extremely close. While education is an issue many Democrats believe will help them around the country, hard feelings about Carper's school policies here mean the governor may have a more difficult time exploiting the issue. Many teachers remain angry about an approach they consider punitive and unrealistic.

"Some teachers say they wouldn't vote for Tom Carper for dogcatcher now," said Joe Matriccino, a high school social studies teacher from Seaford, who voted for Carper twice. "Up until this education stuff, he's been good for Delaware. Then he stabs us in the back."

Joseph A. Pika, a University of Delaware political science professor, said the dispute over school accountability is "very much a hot potato" that could work against Carper in an extremely tight race against Roth. "This policy is a centerpiece of his legacy," Pika said. "Certainly having the election coming so close to all the unhappiness [over it] is unfortunate."

Carper insists that the vast majority of Delaware residents agree with him that raising standards for students and teachers is crucial to the continued well-being of the state's robust economy. During a recent interview, Carper complained that some school administrators and teachers are resistant to any change. "It's not easy, but we haven't flinched," he said. "We haven't walked away from the fight, we've joined it. And our schools are going to be a lot better for it."

The race between Carper and Roth has been dubbed "the battle of the Titans" by state political operatives. It is near the top of the Democrats' target list, which includes Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, Florida, Rhode Island and Washington, as the party attempts to overcome the GOP's 55-to-45-seat hold on the Senate.

Both Carper and Roth are popular and accomplished politicians, which will make the race a difficult choice for the electorate. Delaware voters traditionally have stood by incumbents, and there hasn't been a major upset since 1972, when Democrat Joseph R. Biden Jr. ousted veteran Sen. J. Caleb Boggs (R).

Carper, 52, broke into politics in 1976 by winning election as state treasurer and later used the office as a catapult to the U.S. House. As governor, the "New Democrat" Carper pursued a relatively conservative agenda. Building on the policies of his GOP predecessors, Carper cut taxes, reformed the state's welfare system, attracted new industry, built more prisons and launched his standards-based education reforms.

Forbidden by state law to seek a third term, Carper recently turned his sights on Roth's Senate seat. Early polling shows Carper holding a 10-percentage point edge over Roth, and some political experts say that Roth's advancing age--he is 78--could become an issue, especially if he refuses to debate Carper. But Roth is a strong fund-raiser and effective campaigner who in past races has toured the state with his Saint Bernards.

To win, Carper must offer a plausible case for dumping a 30-year veteran who has vigilantly protected the state's interest, written popular legislation ranging from the Reagan-era tax cuts and tax-deferred individual retirement accounts to the 1998 reforms and restructuring of the Internal Revenue Service, and who chairs one of the most powerful committees in Congress.

Roth and his aides said they do not intend to raise the school accountability controversy in the campaign, describing it as a state and local concern largely outside the federal purview. But Delaware's Republican national committeewoman, Priscilla Rakestraw, argues that unless Carper can find a way to defuse the issue, "it looks like his Waterloo."

The school controversy dates to 1990 and the release of a report documenting a growing gap between the academic performance of high school graduates and the expectations of colleges and employers. Then-Gov. Michael N. Castle (R) seized on the report to develop a series of proposals for standards-based academic reforms. Carper, his successor, decided to run with them.

By 1995, the state Board of Education had approved new content standards for reading, writing, math, science and social studies. Three years later, the General Assembly approved Carper's proposals for gradually ending "social promotions" of students who fail standardized exams.

Delaware's system became a national model, and Carper promoted the reforms as chairman of the National Governors' Association. But Carper touched off a protest last January when he unveiled an unprecedented plan for extending accountability to teachers and school administrators.

Under this performance-based approach, teachers periodically would have to take 150 hours of additional training to retain their certification. Those teachers who had three consecutive bad evaluations in five years would lose their licenses. Moreover, 20 percent of a teacher's evaluation and 30 percent of an administrator's evaluation would be tied to his or her students' progress.

The Delaware State Education Association and school administrators went to war, accusing Carper of threatening the careers of many teachers by holding them to an impossible standard. Some teachers argued that there were dozens of socioeconomic explanations for a student performing poorly, including the failure of parents, and that it was unreasonable to blame the teachers.

Carper and the teachers union eventually reached a truce and worked out a compromise calling for creation of a semi-independent professional standards board to rule on teachers' competence and requiring only 90 hours of additional training for recertification. However, Carper prevailed in requiring that teachers be judged in part on the progress of their students.

The compromise satisfied some--but not all--teachers, while it was roundly attacked by school administrators and superintendents who believed it would undermine their authority.

Even some like Fran O'Malley, a middle school teacher from Wilmington who supports the drive to hold teachers more accountable, says, "I'm not sure it's been ironed out well enough."

The controversy spilled over this fall with the release of the results of the latest statewide test of students. While pupils in the lower grades performed better, more than half of all 8th and 10th graders failed to meet minimum standards for math and writing.

The results caused a panic among some parents who feared that once the accountability reforms were fully in place next year, their children would be prime candidates for mandatory summer school or for repeating their grade. Some school administrators sent home letters to parents urging them to contact their state legislators to complain about the reforms.

Bombarded by protests at town hall meetings across the state, Carper concluded his reforms were in danger and announced that he would postpone by 12 to 24 months any penalties for failing the statewide tests.

"There's huge pressure on schools and districts [around the country] to abandon the reforms," Carper said. "If it means we need to delay full implementation for 12 months or 24 months in order to save the reforms, then we'll do that."

When the General Assembly reconvenes this month, Carper is hoping for new legislation combining revised student testing measures with the compromise on teacher accountability he worked out with the union. He says he is confident that the issue eventually will die down.

"Everybody in Delaware knows we're working hard to improve the schools," Carper said. "It's a little like turning an aircraft carrier around."

BATTLEGROUND DELAWARE

Analysts expect the Senate race to be extremely close in the tiny state.

Population: 745,000, 5th smallest

Rural: 26.8%

65 years and older: 12.7%

College educated: 44.8%

Median household income: $34,875

Median house value: $100,100

Registered voters (1998):

22% I

42% D

36% R

Race:

17% black

80% white

3% other

SOURCE: Almanac of American Politics

CAPTION: Delaware Gov. Thomas R. Carper (D) built on the policies of his GOP predecessors, by cutting taxes and reforming the state's welfare system.

CAPTION: Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R) is a 30-year veteran who has vigilantly protected the state's interest and written a range of popular legislation.