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Education Chief’s Bandwagon Rolling : Feverish Pace by Honig Builds a Wide Consensus

Times Political Writer

Gawky, single-minded and, so far as is known, inexhaustible, Bill Honig dishes out the political choices to the liberals just the same as to the conservatives, to the die-hards the same as to the disinterested.

“There is Plan A, and that is we work together and make the schools better.

“And there is Plan B, which is if you don’t like my Plan A, I go to the public and beat you up.”

After nearly three years as the state superintendent of public instruction, Louis (Bill) Honig Jr.'s bandwagon to revitalize California schools, with who knows how many tens of thousands of miles on its odometer, rumbles up and down the state and across the country with no relaxing of its devilish pace, keeping together what may be the broadest political consensus in California.

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Along the way, he has proved what some public figures only hypothesize, the power of a single idea advanced at the right time. And against the odds and without regard for the wisdom of the odds makers, this scion of a wealthy and privileged San Francisco family who gave up practicing law to teach school has transformed himself into one of the most noticed--and envied--politicians in California.

Who else can claim:

- Leadership of a cause so popular and bipartisan that hardly an official in California will rank it even second on a list of priorities for the last three years?

- The kind of nonpartisan appeal that gets him invited--and there are lots of invitations--to star at political events sponsored by figures as diverse in views as liberal Democratic Assemblyman Tom Hayden of Santa Monica and conservative Republican state Sen. John Seymour of Anaheim?

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- The plain good luck to be positioned for a political career in education just as the baby boomers began propagating a new baby boom of their own, with an attendant new-found alarm over decay in California’s once proud public education system?

“The man met the moment,” concluded Assemblyman Gray Davis (D-Los Angeles), a veteran watcher of political tides.

A newcomer to this level of politics, Honig has suffered consequences of his inexperience. He has bruised the feelings of others who are equally concerned about quality schools, ignored protocols and hogged the credit for achievements to such an extent that more than a few people are in line to kick him on his way down.

For now, though, the critics are kept at bay by widespread agreement that there is at least some movement in education.

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The Excellence Movement

In teachers’ lounges and school board meeting rooms, the reforms championed by Honig are part of what is known in the vernacular as The Excellence Movement, an updated version of what used to be called back-to-basics. Involved are such things as slightly longer school days, more traditional curriculum, new graduation standards, financial bonuses for the best teachers, and revolutionary attempts to test and evaluate in public the progress of individual schools.

In the years since 1983, when Honig, the state Legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian agreed upon these basic reforms and embarked on a three-year increase in spending for schools--from $11.5 billion a year to $15.5 billion--test scores have inched up, high school students have started taking tougher courses, teacher salaries and morale are climbing, and disciplinarians are talking--if not taking--a tougher line.

Those are improvements, but the question is, compared to what?

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California still ranks in the bottom half of all states in proportional spending on schools and commits $700 less per pupil annually than the average of other big industrialized states. Life for teachers may be getting better, but starting secretaries in Los Angeles city government make as much money on the average as beginning teachers; dog catchers make more. And it remains unproved whether The Excellence Movement, with its emphasis on scholarship and cultural homogenization, will appeal evenly to the immigrant stew that is California.

‘A Long Way to Go’

“We’re a little ahead of schedule,” Honig said by way of cautious self-assessment. “We’ve accomplished stage one, which was defining what we wanted to do, defining the field of action. Now, we’ve got to go out and do it. . . . There is a long way left to go and people shouldn’t forget that.”

To this end, Honig is in the air and on the road at least a couple of days each week, as he has been from the start, telling almost any audience that is of a mind to listen that something can be done about schools and that they can help do it.

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It is Honig’s gift. Those scuffs on his shoes from traipsing through the grass roots are what separate him from others in California politics.

The appeal of his message to teachers, parents, business leaders and other civic-minded Californians outside of Sacramento, and his keen grasp of making news, actually are the only powers available to Honig. In California, local officials, legislators and the governor have the authority of the law and budget over schooling; the superintendent of public instruction has only an office and a pulpit.

“I don’t have any power over local schools. My power is political, and part of that, part of being an education leader, is making people pay attention to you,” he said between appearances on a recent speaking tour that took him from Los Angeles to Orange County to San Francisco to Sacramento in just over 20 hours.

Appearance Deceiving

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By looking at him, few would guess his skills at bringing education to life.

His face is as long and thin as a date palm, with arresting black eyebrows that look as if they had been applied with grease paint. His smile is tight and self-conscious, like that of a school teacher. And at a matchstick-thin 6 feet, 4 inches, with hands that churn the air as if he is holding the reins of galloping horses, Honig is as oddly distinctive as he is straightforwardly determined.

The energy of the man is numbing. Traveling with him brings to mind the exhaustion of some distant final exam week.

“I leave my weekends to myself and my family so I don’t get too tired,” he said cheerfully, sipping what he calls his PSA boilermaker cocktail, a beer with apple juice. Even driving home from the airport at 1 a.m., the dauntless Honig lectures on.

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He is a teacher rushing against the bell. The cyclical nature of events means that schools are not likely to remain forever at the top of the public policy agenda, so the big gains must be accomplished pronto before some calamity or other cause comes along.

The price of failure, he said, would be nothing less than the end of public schools as they are known and a revolutionary replacement with “some other system,” perhaps with the use of vouchers so a family can choose which school to send their children to.

No Excuses Acceptable

“The public,” he continued, “just isn’t going to stand for excuses.”

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Yet, already, legislators in key posts at the Capitol report diminished political interest in schools. The big money has been committed. The big reforms enacted. Never mind that Honig warned that it will take five to eight years of sustained effort before the reforms really prove themselves.

“How long will the public hang in there? That’s the real question,” said Seymour, among those who sense boredom creeping into the politics of education.

So far, Honig and his allies have been ingenious or fortunate, or both, in keeping attention on education reform.

This fall, when interest might otherwise have lagged, the state rejected every single elementary and junior high textbook that publishers submitted for approval to sell to California schools. The reason was that the texts had watered down some controversial subjects, chiefly the theory of evolution. Publishers were ordered to go back and put some more hard science in their books.

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There were gasps at such a bold stroke, and Honig’s political celebrity grew across the nation as the man who stood up and beat down the fundamentalist religious right wing, which prefers the theory of creationism over evolution. Actually, it was the state Board of Education that rejected the books, but as so often is the case with Honig, he became a spokesman for the matter and received much of the attention.

Praise From Hayden

“That was one of the most effective things an education leader has done in many years,” Hayden said.

Honig’s dealings with the fundamentalist right illustrate another of his skills--his ability to find common ground with almost everyone. While ignoring demands to water down the teaching of evolution, Honig has vigorously supported the conservative quest for reinstituting instruction of basic social values in school.

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“Absolutely! I think someone has to speak to common values. Some institution has to make the point for being part of a shared moral community,” Honig said. " . . . (This) tends to dissolve conflicts.”

Only few years ago, the fashion was to view schools as multicultural institutions, evidenced by ethnic studies courses and bilingual instruction.

Honig disagrees with those who hold this view.

“If they think we’re going to have little (cultural) enclaves here and there, I have a problem with that,” he said. “Most of the people I talk to want their kids equipped with a common culture.”

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As for bilingual education, Honig wants children moved into English-language classes as fast as possible.

“Forget about bilingual as a method of cultural maintenance,” he said, emphatically.

Middle-Class Elitism?

Which raises the most persistently voiced criticism about Honig and his Excellence Movement: Is it middle-class elitism?

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Even rave Honig supporters, such as Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes (D-Los Angeles), chair of the Assembly Education Committee, temper their praise in some areas.

“I don’t think he’s had enough experience with inner city schools,” Hughes said.

Honig, who taught in a mixed-culture school in the Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco from 1972 to 1976 before becoming superintendent of a Marin County district, spends an extraordinary amount of time arguing that excellence and achievement are as relevant to poor blacks and immigrant Latinos as to middle-class whites.

“We cannot allow another generation of minority youth to go through school and never receive an education,” Honig wrote in his book, “Last Chance for Our Children,” published last July.

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In interviews, Honig expands on the point.

“The most elitist idea of all is that these guys (the disadvantaged) don’t want excellence,” Honig said.

Students Accept Standards

Students from all backgrounds, he insists, readily accept high standards in such extracurricular activities as band or sports. So why not in the classroom?

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Some critics think this is too simple. “Think how many kids never make the team,” responded one long-term legislative education expert who asked not to be identified.

“Break students into four groups,” this expert continued. “The gifted at the top succeed with or without Honig. Those at the very bottom have their own political constituency. That leaves two groups in the middle. Honig speaks to the top half. But he doesn’t have much to offer the others, those who are dropping out in record numbers. And these are the students in the high-growth populations.”

From the start, Honig’s relations with these established experts and his relations with other politicians have been cool.

His defeat of former Supt. Wilson Riles, a popular figure in government circles, caught much of the state’s political establishment by surprise, and Honig was not shy in being one of the few officeholders to claim a mandate from those elections. His early negotiations with Republican Deukmejian and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature over school financing were sometimes clumsy, even if effective in the end. And his lack of interest in day-to-day administration demoralized the state Department of Education, which maintained more than a few friends in the Legislature.

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Refuses to Choose

Since then, Honig, like other superintendents before him, has mostly refused to choose which pro-education programs he favors the most, leaving the Legislature and governor the difficult chore of establishing priorities among competing interests and saying no to some.

But still, you can see it in their faces and hear it in their strained politeness: When politicians are asked about Honig, it is not these criticisms but his successes that are most on their minds.

How in the world, they marvel, did this intellectual beanpole sprout out of nowhere and break through years of deadlock over revamping education. And how come he did not get crushed or muscled aside by the veteran mossbacks when the idea of reform caught on?

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“This guy is the best manipulator of the press we’ve had in California since Ronald Reagan was governor,” grumbled one Sacramento Democrat in a comment not untypical of what is offered on a not-for-attribution basis.

Many of these same sometimes critics and certainly many of his supporters wonder aloud about Honig’s political future. How far can he go? How far does he want to go?

Wants to Stay Put

His own answer, at age 48, is he wants to stay put. Yes, he has been something of a dabbler in his career, moving from job to job. But, Honig said, “If I had designed a position to do for the rest of my life, this would be it.”

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He intends to seek reelection next year to the nonpartisan job and his professional campaign organizer, Clinton Reilly of San Francisco, guessed that no major opponent will surface. Already Honig is wondering if he can run up the voter percentages enough to shock anyone who thinks the roar has gone out of reform.

“I’d like to see some of the jokers up there who criticize schools with impunity pay a political price,” he said, thinking of his enemies in Sacramento.

Honig dropped out of the Democratic Party and reregistered without stating a partisan preference in the autumn of 1981. He said this was the proper way to run for a nonpartisan office. If he ever chose to run for partisan office, such as governor, he would have to register in a party one year before filing his candidacy.

‘I’ll Give You a Hint’

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Both he and wife Nancy, an activist and manager of the family winery, acknowledge that if things go as well in the years ahead, Honig is bound to start hearing the seductive whispers, “Gee, Bill, think how much more you could do for schools if you ran for. . . . “

“I’ll give you a hint,” Nancy Honig said. “His hero is Cincinnatus, the Roman leader who did his duty and then gave it up to return to the family farm.”


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