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The race for state schools chief heated up Tuesday as candidates Maureen DiMarco and Delaine Eastin traded verbal blows in a tense, one-hour dust-up that will be aired on cable television over the next three weeks.

DiMarco chided Eastin, a Democratic assemblywoman, for voting against funds to expand public preschools "while she was voting to increase her own salary" as a legislator.

Eastin had this to say about her opponent, a fellow Democrat who is the Republican governor's secretary for child development and education: "Every time Pete Wilson has made a bad proposal, my opponent has held his coat and egged him on."

These and other barbs punctuated a League of Women Voters-sponsored debate in Santa Monica moderated by commentator Bill Rosendahl of Century Cable. With few ideological differences in their battle to become the state's first woman superintendent of public instruction, each candidate has increasingly made her opponent the issue.

Eastin set the tone by bringing up the Wilson Administration's ill-fated attempt in the summer of 1992 to save about $3 million in the state budget by delaying kindergarten for thousands of children. DiMarco defended the proposal as educationally sound, claiming it was suggested by kindergarten teachers who noted that some youngsters who turn 5 shortly before the state's Dec. 1 cutoff date were not yet ready for school.

But the Administration dropped its proposal to change the cutoff date to Sept. 1 after parents and educators widely denounced forcing youngsters to wait a year before entering school.

"A cockamamie solution" is how Eastin described it Tuesday, using the proposal to bolster her claim that Wilson, with DiMarco as his apologist, has made building "gold-plated prisons" a higher priority than the state's public schools.

"Typical Legislature rhetoric" retorted DiMarco, arguing that the Administration did as much or more for school budgets than anyone could reasonably expect in fiscally tough times.

DiMarco, tracing her 22-year involvement in public education, starting as a volunteer in her daughters' classrooms, said Eastin "never had a single day" of experience in a kindergarten-through-12th-grade setting.

"I'll put my experience up against hers any day," snapped Eastin, chairwoman of the Assembly Education Committee and a former community college instructor.

They had some of their sharpest exchanges over the recently vetoed California Learning Assessment System, the statewide student testing program.

Eastin accused DiMarco, who urged the governor to veto legislation that would have continued the three-year-old system for five more years, of throwing the $50 million spent on CLAS down the drain mainly to mollify the political right. She added that DiMarco did not cooperate with the CLAS bill's author, Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) in trying to work out a compromise.

"How sad she wasn't present at the table earlier," Eastin said.

DiMarco called Eastin's portrayal "incredible revisionist history" and said she deserved credit for sounding the alarm when things began to go wrong with the testing system. DiMarco blamed problems with the tests mostly on the state Department of Education, which she said did not deliver the kind of system that was outlined in the 1991 legislation that created the CLAS program.

The contenders managed to hurl their fusillades even while responding to questions that showed them agreeing on issues more often than not. For example, both call for "zero tolerance" of guns and drugs on campus, do not believe a teacher's sexual orientation should be an issue, and support sex education and teaching about AIDS.

The rivalry sometimes turned into a game of one-upmanship. When DiMarco found an opportunity to mention her endorsements from two statewide police organizations, Eastin took a moment the next time she had the floor to note that she had the largest police support organization in the state and the California Assn. of Highway Patrolmen in her column.

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