Public Schools Chief Honig Has a Different Sales Pitch : ‘Political Animal’ Makes an Appeal in His Book, ‘Last Chance for Children’

When State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig goes into a gas station or restaurant, he feels he’s in the public eye, although his public does not always recognize him. After he was elected in 1982, he said, “I gave up privacy. Star celebrity I am not--people are not quite sure where they have seen me. . . .”

On the other hand, demi-stardom has its pluses. California is one of the few states where the schools’ superintendent is elected rather than appointed, and Honig points out that an advantage of having to run for office is that “it gives you a constituency, and visibility, and that gives you some clout.”

‘Selling a Point of View’

Honig describes himself as “a political animal"--one who faces a run for reelection next year--and after all, in politics, clout is the name of the game. “The public has got to perceive you as standing for something,” he said. “You are selling a point of view. Somebody has to say, this is what we believe in, what we have to accomplish.”

So when a publisher called and asked him if he wanted to write a book, 75- or 80-hour workweeks notwithstanding, Honig answered yes.

The book, “Last Chance for Our Children: How You Can Help Save Our Schools” (Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. Inc.: $12.95), gave him the chance “to put ideas down for the average person out there. I believe in public schools and the importance of schools, and part of getting them to move in the right direction is to get people to understand what’s going on,” he said. “A lot of my job is going around and selling. It’s a little different approach than the educational community has been following for quite awhile.”


Honig is an advocate of traditional education, which he describes as emphasizing a rigorous curriculum, not only in the three Rs but in history, languages, science, literature, the arts. It demands nightly homework, orderly classrooms, high expectations of both students and teachers.

The very word, tradition, raises the hackles of some of his critics. “Tradition has a kind of negative cast,” he acknowledged. “It is stodgy; it even has political connotations. People feel, ‘We are modern, up-to-date. We are going to make our own lives.’ There’s a tendency to say anything from the past is bad.”

But he sees tradition as a cultural support, a way to transmit society’s values to the next generation. He suggests that the traditional humanities curriculum helps students learn to behave ethically and think independently, and in a democracy, “to have a choice, you have to know what you are choosing.”,

In the educational sense, he said, it is a “harkening back to what seems to work.” He recognizes that not every student is automatically going “to put out the necessary effort. So to pull this off, we need teachers as cultural ambassadors to keep hooking the child.

“This is an ambitious idea. We have never pulled it off, except for a small group, in depth.”

He wants to involve both teachers and “high-level talent"--university historians, scientists and the like--in the effort of making their subjects exciting to young students. When the State Board of Education voted unanimously last week to reject more than 20 textbooks because they “water down” treatment of evolution and other controversial issues, Honig said, the decision was actually “the culmination of a year-and-a-half effort.” He intends to see the level of all textbooks, not just science texts, raised.

He said he still hears the criticism that his “traditional education” policy is racist “from some of the political types in the Legislature who are five or 10 years out of date. I don’t hear it as much in the field anymore. Minority leaders don’t say it; they say that their kids will be left out if they don’t have an ambitious, enriched program. The jobs of the future will favor the better-educated.”

‘Last Chance’

Honig is quite serious when he calls his book “Last Chance for Our Children.” “I could have called it ‘Last Chance for Our Country,’ ” he said. “We’ll spend a billion on a destroyer, but our society’s quality of life down the road is being worked on in the classroom now.”

For the moment, he believes the push for a voucher system (which would give parents a voucher worth what their school system is spending per pupil, which they could then use to send their child to any accredited school) is “quiescent, but ready to spring.” If it were to be implemented, he believes “we will lose public education in the sense that it has been a central institution.”

But public schools are an important unifying force in our society, central to the maintenance of democracy, he said. Moreover, he asked, what happens to the children if their new school fails--which inevitably some of them will.

“My argument,” he summed up, “is that if you can, fix it. If that doesn’t work, then you try something different.”

He himself “always liked school,” but originally intended to be a lawyer, not an educator. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law in 1963, clerked for California Supreme Court Chief Justice Matthew Tobriner, then worked in the state Department of Finance, where he said he was for the first time “a little involved in education on a political level.”

Joined Law Firm

Next he joined a San Francisco law firm, but acknowledged that “corporate conflict didn’t get me going.” He also was active in a Constitutional Rights Foundation project talking to junior high and high school students about legal issues. “Something clicked for me,” he recalled, and he decided to switch careers. In 1971 he joined the Teacher Corps, got a master’s degree in education at San Francisco State University in 1972 and from 1972 to 1976 taught in an inner-city district. Later he was appointed to the state Board of Education and was superintendent of a Marin County school district.

The switch from lawyer to teacher meant a large cut in money and prestige, and Honig remembers that he “had a big fight with my family about it.” He said that his father, an advertising executive, and Tobriner, his cousin, took him to lunch one day to try to talk to him out of the move. They wanted to know why on earth he wanted to go into teaching. “I said, ‘We need good people in teaching; I think it is important.’ They couldn’t see that it is important--that is what has got to change,” he said.

When he was teaching elementary school, he said, “I used to come home and crash for an hour. It is draining. And I was struck with how alone you are. Teachers are very isolated.”

They need more support, better training, more money, he said. He would like to see career ladders established; then teachers who take on added responsibilities would be able to earn more, “instead of having to, for example, pump gas in the summer.”

Teacher Shortage Real

And a teacher shortage is no longer just a cloud on a distant horizon. A recent poll indicates that more than 25% of teachers see themselves quitting within five years, and Honig says California will need 90,000 to 110,000 new teachers in the next few years. He’d like to see a national campaign for teachers modeled after “be all that you can be. Join the Army,” complete with an 800 number. “We are in competition with the business community, the engineering community, the Army,” he said. “It would be interesting to see if there is a market for this message. But I have only so much time for promotion.”

Still, a lot of his time is spent selling and talking, talking and selling. To draw in new teachers, he visits college campuses, telling students that teaching is “rewarding, an important thing to do.” He makes the round of schools “to give visibility to the schools and the kids that are doing what we’re talking about.” He meets with teachers and school boards, parents and business groups. To launch the “California schools are moving up” campaign (which was followed by “Parents are teachers, too”) he visited 30 TV stations “and still it ran at 3 o’clock in the morning,” he said.

He has enlisted his wife, Nancy, in his campaign. She quit her job as president of a professional management consulting firm in the health care field to organize a foundation, the Quality Education Project, which worked to involve the public on behalf of the schools.

The Honigs have a 10-year-old son, Jonathan, and also three older children from previous marriages. “We both work hard, so we like to keep the weekends protected,” Honig said. “Sundays are sacrosanct. I spend them with Jonathan.” Sometimes they go on weekends to the winery they own in Napa, which Nancy Honig manages, but Monday morning, it is back to 18-hour days for Bill Honig.

When he first decided to run for the office of superintendent of public instruction, he said that, “everybody asked, ‘Bill, what do you want to do this for? You will be a figurehead.’ My answer was, ‘You don’t understand the potential of that office. You have to have a vision, and you have to sell it.’