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State Education Secretary to Quit, Sources Say

October 01, 1996|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Maureen DiMarco, the state's first secretary of child development and education, will announce today that she is stepping down Nov. 1, six years after she inaugurated the position, sources said.

Orange County Supervisor Marian Bergeson was expected to be named today as DiMarco's replacement, sources said late Monday.

Bergeson, 70, was Gov. Pete Wilson's top choice to replace outgoing Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig when he was forced to resign in 1993, but her nomination was rejected by the state Assembly.

DiMarco, 48, a longtime Orange County education activist, could not be reached Monday for comment. Wilson's spokesman, Sean Walsh, said, "I refuse to either confirm or deny that report."

But Sacramento insiders indicated that DiMarco was being eased out by being asked to take a nomination to the state's Public Employment Relations Board, which she declined.

They said she is not a strong advocate of vouchers, the controversial concept of giving parents public dollars to send their children to private schools--a position that may have put her in disfavor with members of Wilson's staff.

Bergeson has supported a modified voucher proposal that would keep all the money within the public education system but allow parents to choose their schools. A spokesman for Bergeson declined comment but acknowledged that the supervisor was in Sacramento on Monday talking with the governor's staff.

Wilson supports a narrowly targeted, publicly funded voucher program aimed at helping students attending the least successful public schools transfer to private campuses with better track records.

Although DiMarco often defended Wilson's positions publicly, as a lifelong Democrat she never fit easily into the Republican administration. At the same time, she drew criticism from education groups for standing by some of the governor's policies.

Still, DiMarco leaves the job on a high note, at a time when the state is seeking to improve instruction in primary grades by investing $1.2 billion to reduce class sizes, purchase better textbooks and better prepare teachers to help children learn to read. Those efforts have won bipartisan support for Wilson.

The resignation surprised key figures in education issues.

Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon), who worked closely with DiMarco as chairman of the Assembly's Education Committee, said her departure "would be a great loss." He credited her with helping craft legislation to address shortcomings in how the state teaches math and reading.

Davis Campbell, executive director of the California School Boards Assn., an organization that DiMarco headed at one time, said she "has always been passionately loyal to the governor and at the same time very pro-public education and very sensitive to the needs of the schools . . . and that has from time to time put her at odds with members of the governor's inner circle."

For that reason, Campbell said, it may be a good moment for DiMarco to leave. "Maureen has had a healthy tenure there, and it may be that it just may have been the right time for both of them," he said.

Wilson and DiMarco both opposed Proposition 174, the educational voucher initiative on the 1993 statewide ballot that was soundly defeated by voters. But earlier this year, the governor proposed a more narrowly drawn measure, which passed the Republican-controlled Assembly only to be killed by the Democratic majority in the Senate.

She also differed with Wilson when she opposed Proposition 187, the voter-approved measure that denied illegal immigrants the right to attend public schools. That provision has since been declared unconstitutional.

A former member of the Garden Grove Unified School District Board of Education, DiMarco was among the first education leaders to raise concerns that the state's recommended method of teaching math neglected basic computation skills.

She also pushed hard for basic-skills testing of students and for changes in the state's policy on how best to teach reading.

Wilson created the education secretary's job to bring together under one office programs serving children's schooling, health and social needs. But he never pushed the Legislature to make it a full-fledged government department.

When she took the job, DiMarco was enthusiastic about promoting Wilson's plans for programs such as investment in preschools to ensure that children come to school mentally and physically healthy and prepared to learn. Completing such an agenda was delayed, however, by massive state budget deficits in the early 1990s.

As a longtime parent volunteer, an advisor to Honig and a highly respected president of the California School Board Assn., DiMarco had argued against school budget cuts pushed by former Gov. George Deukmejian. As a member of Wilson's cabinet in 1992, however, she was forced to defend a budget with no additional funds for schools.

That role earned her the ire of many education advocates across the state who felt that she had sold them out. John Mockler, a lobbyist on education issues, said the budget problems--which did not abate until the state's economy began reviving last year--cut into DiMarco's support among educators. "From then on, it became difficult for her to operate," he said.

In 1994, she ran for the post of state superintendent of public instruction after her former boss, Honig, was convicted on conflict-of-interest charges.

But she lacked the fund-raising prowess of her main opponent, former Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, a Democrat, and got little help from Republicans.

Times staff writer Dave Lesher contributed to this story.

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