"It's becoming a school system for the people who have no option," Eugene Kinlow said softly. "But we decided to keep our children in the D.C. public schools, and then to fight to make them better. That requires a pretty fair investment, but somebody has to do it."

Kinlow, 38, the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer and now a GS-15 in the federal government, was elected by a wide margin Tuesday to an at-large seat on the District of Columbia Board of Education.

Yesterday, morning, after just five hours sleep, Kinlow was at the school board offices at 10 a.m. Except for lunch, he stayed until 4:30 p.m., talking to board members and attending committee meetings.

"Now I'm going to have to get to know the other members of the board," Kinlow said. "I'm not going to come rushing in telling them a lot of things they have to do."

Last night, Kinlow set out for a school board community hearing at an elementary school in southeast Washington.

"It's a pretty long day for a part-time job," Kinlow remarked, "If I keep this up I'm going to get in trouble with HEW." Kinlow works full time for the Department of Health Education and Welfare as deputy director of the office of personnel systems integrity, which he says tries to make sure that employes are treated fairly under civil service rules.

In an election race with 11 candidates, Kinlow received 13,205 votes 30 percent of the total and almost 7,000 more votes than the secondplace finisher, attorney Rohulamin Quander, who received 6,265 votes.

Kinlow, who lives in Anacostia, carried every ward in the city except Ward 4, where Quander topped him by 455 votes.

His largest share of the vote-48 percent - was in Ward 3, the mostly-white area west of Rock Creek Park. Kinlow said he spent little time campaigning there, but his supporters said he was probably helped substantially by an endorsement form city Council member Betty Anne Kane, who was a school board member at the time of her election to the council and by editorial support from The Washington Post.

Kinlow is filling the last seven months of Kane's term on the school board. He said he will run again in November for a full four-year term on the board.*tAlthough this was Kinlow's first race in a city-wide election, he is no stranger to school politics.

For the last five years he has been elected president of the Anacostia Community School Board, a group that supervised a major federal program-geared to community involvement and reading improvement-in 31 Anacostia schools.The board still has a considerable advisory role in how Anacostia school are run, although its federal grant ended in 1977.

Last fall the Anacostia board gave strong backing to a policy of requiring students to achieve minimum scores on standard tests before they can be promoted from grade to grade or graduated from high school.

The policy was dropped for this school term because of disruptions caused by the city's long teacher strike. But Kinlow said the schools in Anacostia will enforce it next year Throughout his campaign he stressed that he hoped a similar policy to end "social promotions" would be adopted throughout the city.

"If we can't do it in all 12 grades right away," Kinlow said, "we should at least enforce some standards for sixth grade. We have to make sure that students who haven't learned the basic skills aren't moved into junior high school. They just can't handle the work there."

Kinlow and his wife, Nan, who owns a furniture store, have five children. His oldest daughter, Jacqueline, graduated from Ballou Senior High in Southeast Washington last year and now is a freshman at Georgetown University.

Two of Kinlow's sons are enrolled in Ballou's special program in science and math. A son and a daughter attend Leckie Elementary.

"The problem we have in this city is enormous," Kinlow said. "How do we keep some of our best-motivated students in the public schools rather than being creamed off and put into parochial and private schools? . . . It's not just a white phenomenon any more. It's happening all over the city. We have to have strong academic programs in all our schools and keep these well-motivated students in them."

Kinlow himself went through the first eight grades-skipping two years along the way-in a two-room school in Dumas, Ark., where his father was a minister as well as a farmer. There were 11 children in his family.

He graduated in 1960 from Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College, where he majored in mathematics and edited the college newspaper.

After teaching junior high school briefly in Little Rock, he came to Washington as a statistician for the Census Bureau.

He transferred to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1966, then worked from 1968 to 1971 for Westinghouse Learning Corporation before coming to HEW as director of its upward mobility programs. He took his present HEW job in 1977. CAPTION: Chart, D.C. Primary Election Results; Picture, EUGENE KINLOW . . . "I'm not going to come rushing in"