SAN FRANCISCO — In his third term as California's Supt. of Public Instruction, Bill Honig remains passionate about education. "If you're not excited about what you do, if there's not the passion, nothing's going to get done."
Honig's commitment is longstanding. He left a law practice to teach in an inner-city school in San Francisco, then braved political odds when he challenged Wilson Riles, a three-term incumbent, in 1982.
During his first term, Honig crafted a broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, minority educators, school administrators, teachers and parents. Such support enabled passage of SB 813, an ambitious bill linking money for higher teacher salaries, new textbooks and other improvements to reforms like a longer school year, more homework and tougher high school graduation requirements.
Gov. George Deukmejian reluctantly signed the $800-million bill. But Honig's coalition splintered along partisan lines, and his disagreements with the governor degenerated into a personal feud. Many politicians and the media criticized both sides in that fight, saying it was getting in the way of carrying out the reforms.
That didn't stop Honig. He took his pitch to the voters two years ago to get them to guarantee a chunk of the state budget for education. Californians narrowly passed Proposition 98, a landmark school-funding initiative that mandated roughly 40% of discretionary state tax revenues for public schools and community colleges. Honig had won again.
Commitment to education is a family affair. Honig's wife, Nancy, a former businesswoman, founded the Quality Education Project, which strives to get more parents involved in schools. Honig taught his son, Steven, when the boy was 9.
Honig, always animated, reels off statistics about the progress California's students have made since he took office, but he readily concedes much more remains to be done. What's next on his agenda? Governor? Honig quickly answers: "Superintendent for four years."
Question: What can the new governor do to make a difference in every classroom?
Answer: Establish the vision of where education's going. That's important, because it's a big system, a lot of different parts--teachers, administrators, school boards--and if we can get agreement--here's the game plan for the 1990s, and have it general enough so that we can fill it in but specific enough so that it gives us a focus--then it sets the climate under which we can improve the schools.
Q: What do you mean, "Here's the game plan"?
A: After President Bush set (education) goals for the nation, we had a California summit, (with) representatives of the business community, educators, and so forth. There was a good deal of consensus on what we had to do: More kids who graduate from a four-year college; more youngsters who qualify and graduate with a technical preparation degree as transition to work; fewer dropouts. Then there's a strategy to get there: a thinking, active, engaging curriculum for all kids. (Then there were) all the different initiatives that had to happen for that to occur: The frameworks that embody those ideas had to be beefed up, staff had to be retooled 'til you get teachers up to speed, the science framework . . .
Q: By framework, you mean curriculum guide?
A: You have a new way of teaching science that is concept driven--it gets kids to think. But you have to bring teachers up to speed in that. You have to change the methods by which classes are presented: more hands-on, cooperative learning. You have to change some of the organizational patterns in schools--more teamwork of both teachers and kids. . . . You have to have better textbooks. You have to have better leadership. You have to use technology a lot more.
Q: Governor-elect Pete Wilson has hired your former adviser, Maureen DiMarco, to head his new cabinet-level department. What does this appointment hold for the children of California?
A: I think it's a very positive sign. In my conversations with the governor-elect and with his staff, they want to keep lines of communication open. . . . And they looked around for a person who had credibility in the educational community, intelligence and creativity, and a track record. . . . It's a very good sign that there is going to be a different atmosphere.
. . . What happened is that the political consensus and community consensus on school reform that we worked so hard to develop in '82 and '83, when I first ran and then we got SB 813, all broke down about '85, '86, '87. (It had been) bipartisan, there were Republicans in favor of it. . . . (That consensus broke down) when the governor--it's my reading of it--intentionally tried to make it a partisan issue, (and) went after me personally.
Q: Why do you think that happened?