What Makes Honig Run? Better Schools

Times Education Writer

Four years ago, veteran state school Supt. Wilson Riles ran for reelection as a booster of California’s public schools. He lost.

The man who beat him--Bill Honig--is not about to make the same mistake. Worried by a poll showing that voters are divided on whether the schools are getting better or worse, Honig is running hard for reelection even though his two challengers are little-known and lack the money to mount a statewide campaign.

“We’ve got a long way to go. Our children are still attending schools we have no reason to be proud of,” says Honig. If returned to office in the nonpartisan June 3 election for superintendent of public instruction, he pledges “to keep up the pressure” to improve the schools.


Keeping up the pressure has in fact become Honig’s style in a job that manyin Sacramento had viewed as inconsequential.

For two years, he campaigned up and down the state for the superintendent’s job, contending that students need more homework, discipline and challenging courses of study. He enlisted corporate executives, local politicians and university leaders, among others, to get behind his school improvement campaign. And just six months after taking office in 1983, he pressured the Legislature and a reluctant Gov. George Deukmejian into enacting the state’s sweeping school reform law.

To keep the pressure on local school officials, he created a system of school “report cards” to allow parents and the public to see whether the schools were in fact getting better, as measured by test scores and other education statistics.

To put more pressure on publishers to get what Honig regarded as higher quality textbooks, Honig and the state Board of Education rejected all the new science texts presented for official adoption last fall. Only after the publishers added material on evolution, human reproduction and other controversial topics did the board allow the books to be sold to California schools, and Honig is promising more of the same next year.

And to keep the pressure on himself, Honig--a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned politician--said his own performance should be judged by how well California’s 4.1 million children scored on standard tests.

In the three years since Honig took office, the average scores on both the state exams and the Scholastic Aptitude Test have inched upward, but not enough to establish a clear trend or to wipe out the long decline that began in the late 1960s.

For example, the California high school seniors who took the SAT averaged a combined score of 904 in 1985, up from 895 in 1983. The seniors tested by the California Assessment Program also scored slightly better in every category than they had in 1983. And, as Honig is fond of pointing out, a greater percentage of students are taking the exams.

Significantly more students are also taking a full high school curriculum that includes four years of English and three years of math, science and social studies.

But whether a shift in a set of school statistics has much effect on the voters is another question.

“We didn’t think he should come out and thump his chest and say how great the schools are,” said John Gutierrez, a Honig campaign adviser in San Francisco. In 1985, a campaign poll found that about 35% of California voters thought the schools were improving, while nearly 30% said they weren’t. The rest weren’t sure.

Two Others on Ballot

Running along with Honig on the June 3 ballot are Jeanne Baird, an educational project adviser from Los Angeles, and Daniel Nusbaum, a substitute teacher from Long Beach. Both were also among nine candidates on the ballot in 1983, with Baird coming in seventh with 3.1% of the vote, and Nusbaum ninth with 2.2%. Neither has run an organized campaign this time either.

In contrast to the other statewide offices, the school superintendent’s post is nonpartisan, so the June 3 election is not a primary. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, he is elected. If no candidate exceeds 50%, then a runoff election takes place in November between the two who received the most votes in June.

Honig has raised more than $700,000 and plans to spend $400,000 on television ads for this final month of the campaign. The message is familiar: Honig calls for more discipline, homework and academic rigor in the public schools.

“I see this campaign as a referendum on whether we’re on the right track,” Honig said. “My power to get things done in Sacramento depends on grass-roots support, so it is important to do well if I’m going to keep the momentum going.”

Needs 63% to 65%

How well? “Well, 53% or 54% will look weak, and that’s the way it will be interpreted here (in Sacramento). I think I have to get 63% to 65% of the vote,” Honig said.

“There’s a pretty large group out there that’s skeptical (about the schools), but I’ve got to convince them that someone is pushing for better quality and making some progress,” he said.

Honig has been so persistent--and to the dismay of some politicians, so successful at gaining attention--that many political observers, including for a time some of Deukmejian’s advisers, believed that he actually had his sights on a higher post. But if so, Honig masks his interests well. In conversation, he seems vaguely annoyed by news of political machinations, while he will talk with enthusiasm and at length about the latest educational journal article about teaching math to fourth-graders or making school principals more effective on the job.

Responding to political questions, Honig repeatedly offers the same basic response: “This is a long-term job. It will take five or 10 years more to show a real improvement in the schools. I like this job, and the only question I have is how long I can keep up this level of effort.”