Bill Honig’s decade as state schools chief produced a number of notable successes that forged national reputations--for California as a state ahead of the curve in improving school quality, and for Honig as a tireless voice for education reform.
On Friday, he also became the state’s only superintendent of schools ever to be convicted of a felony and face the loss of his office. A Sacramento jury’s guilty verdict on four counts of conflict of interest puts an ironic end to an era of foment in California education.
“What’s ironic in light of the trial is that in dealing with him as a politician, there was never any guile. There were no games. He was very upfront and direct,” Sen. Gary K. Hart, a Santa Barbara Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee and who wants to run for Honig’s office, said Saturday.
Honig’s tenure was a period of near-feverish reform efforts. Largely because of his efforts, science textbooks now teach about evolution, math textbooks stress problem solving over rote learning, and reading books favor real literature over Dick and Jane--changes felt nationwide because of California’s dominance in the textbook market. Similarly, new curricula, or “frameworks,” in such areas as social studies, math and language arts also became national models.
Overhauls of annual student tests have resulted in fuller assessments of writing skill, analytical reading and math computation, and reduced the reliance on multiple-choice questions as a gauge of knowledge. Blueprints for restructuring elementary, middle and high schools offer ways for improvement with scarce resources. Honig also helped give administrator and teacher training a big boost, and he drew attention--and sometimes extra money--to schools with innovative faculties.
But there were failures as well.
As the state slid deeper into recession, California slipped to 41st among states in the amount spent per child on education. Class sizes are among the biggest in the nation. Despite some notable improvements, the state’s three-year dropout rate remains high--18.2% for the class of 1991. Although there were gains in achievement, much of the reform emphasis was on the top one-third of students.
Honig’s tenure was also a time of exploding enrollments and big increases in students who speak little or no English--nearly one-fifth of the state’s 5 million kindergarten through 12th-grade students today. One-fifth of California students live in poverty, with schools increasingly confronting such basic needs as food and health care.
“Bill Honig made very visible and brought to people’s awareness and attention the kinds of problems that we’re facing,” said Kathryn Dronenburg of the State Board of Education. “But the problems that face California now are just tremendous, and they have to do with budget kinds of problems, not curriculum and school reform.”
A Superior Court jury convicted Honig, 55, of four felony conflict-of-interest charges, agreeing with prosecutors that he had diverted $337,509 in public funds to an education program headed by his wife, Nancy.
Although Honig, who vehemently maintained that he did nothing wrong, will seek an appeal, the conviction triggered his immediate suspension. He will be removed from office upon his Feb. 26 sentencing, at which he faces up to five years in prison. W. David Dawson, executive deputy superintendent of public instruction, will assume the reins until Gov. Pete Wilson appoints a successor, subject to Legislative approval.
Honig said in June that he did not expect to run again when his term expired in 1995.
His successor will have the difficult job of trying to marshal support for the state’s public schools in an era of shrinking state budgets and increasingly needy students--a challenge Honig accepted with gusto.
“It’s a lot tougher to teach today’s kids, and to do that on a shoestring is the challenge that faces every California educator, and particularly the new state superintendent,” said Tom DeLapp of the Assn. of California School Administrators.
Honig’s clashes with legislators and others over education funding earned him enemies, as did his advocacy for the teaching of evolution, sex education and literature that offended some conservative Christians.
Joseph Carrabino, who jousted bitterly with Honig before resigning from the State Board of Education last year, said his foe’s accomplishments have been vastly overstated.
“I think we’ve had a lot of hoopla and publicity over things that are not that significant,” Carrabino said.
But many educators--from teachers and administrators who work in the state’s embattled schools to scholars and leaders of nationwide efforts to overhaul American education who placed him at the forefront of reform--loved the man.
Juli DiChiro, principal of Will Rogers Elementary School in Santa Monica, said Honig was an invaluable champion in the increasingly tough battles for state budget funds and credited him with pushing administrators and teachers to improve their schools.
“The thing about Honig is that he never got too far away from the day-to-day practice of what happens in schools,” DiChiro said. “The things that he was proposing and asking people to consider were doable--maybe not easy, but doable.”
Diane Ravitch, a reform advocate and a high-ranking Education Department official in the Bush Administration, called Honig one of the nation’s top educators and “one of the most honorable, most ethical people I know” in testimony last week at Honig’s trial.
During Honig’s tenure, more high school students signed up for harder courses, including those required for college admission and others that prepared them to take Advanced Placement exams to earn college credits while in high school.
Scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, widely used for college admissions, declined until last year, in part because a bigger pool of students was taking them. In 1992, California seniors averaged 416 on the verbal part, up one point from the year before; the average in math was 484, up two points. Nationwide, the average verbal score was 423 and math was 476.
Scores for the California Assessment Program achievement exams rose steadily for nearly a decade until last spring, when results for eighth-graders registered some ominous signs of slippage. There were declines in scores for reading, science and social studies; writing and mathematics scores held relatively steady. Honig attributed the declines in part to eroding budgets and increasing needs of students.
Honig pushed for publicity for every achievement, calling reporters every time new scores were released and holding news conferences at schools that did well. He buttonholed editorial writers whenever state funds for schools were threatened, and his high visibility disputes with legislators and two governors--George Deukmejian and Wilson--were legendary.
His sometimes abrasive manner and his delight in portraying himself as a righteous outsider in Sacramento occasionally rubbed even some of his admirers the wrong way. His long-winded, machine-gun-paced talking style caused one educator, a Honig supporter, to quip that it took no effort to carry on a conversation with the superintendent because all you had to do was listen.
Most said privately that they had been surprised by the indictments and were stunned by the verdicts because they had always believed Honig to be a man of integrity. But they were also reluctant to second-guess the jury in the complicated conflict-of-interest case.
California State University Chancellor Barry Munitz, who stressed that he had not followed the trial closely, said: “I guess the lesson for all the rest of us is to be extraordinarily conservative about everything we do.”
Times education writers Sandy Banks and Larry Gordon contributed to this story.
Bill Honig’s tenure as state superintendent of public instruction produced mixed results, with a number of notable successes. Here are a few key indicators of statewide school quality:
High school enrollments in UC qualifying courses
Passing scores on Advanced Placement Test*
Scholastic Aptitude Test
Average verbal score:
Average math score:
* per 100 seniors
Source: California Department of Education