SACRAMENTO — In an appearance that could be politically damaging to State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, his wife is scheduled to go before the State Board of Education today to explain how she runs a consulting project that does a multimillion dollar business with California schools.
Nancy Honig is president of the Quality Education Project, a successful "parent involvement" enterprise that last year paid her a salary of $108,000. The Honigs also collected $18,000 in rent from the nonprofit project for the use of office space in their spacious home in the Pacific Heights area of San Francisco, from which QEP is run.
Joseph D. Carrabino, president of the State Board of Education, said the board wants to hear an explanation from Nancy Honig because "there have been all these accusations" that QEP represents a "conflict of interest" for her husband and that "both have been profiting from it."
"When I walk through the building (the Department of Education building in Sacramento), employees ask me, 'Aren't you going to do something about it? Aren't you going to stop it?' " Carrabino said.
But Bill Honig denied in an interview Thursday that there is any conflict of interest.
He said more than 90% of QEP's financial support comes from foundation grants and private gifts, with only a small amount from federal or state funds.
Local school districts have spent some state money to purchase QEP services, Honig added, but "the money went directly to the districts. It wasn't as if QEP benefited, so there was no conflict of interest."
The state schools chief also denied that he has ever pressured local school officials to buy the QEP program, another possible conflict of interest.
However, several sources in the educational community observed that direct pressure would not be necessary. They noted that just the fact QEP is run by Nancy Honig could be enough to persuade timorous local school officials to buy the program.
From modest beginnings, QEP has grown into a $3.2-million program that is a major force in the "parent involvement" field, where parents primarily in low-income families are encouraged to participate more actively in their childrens' education.
More than 200,000 youngsters, most of them in elementary schools, are enrolled in the program. QEP is in 320 schools, mostly in California. QEP is also in Mississippi and is negotiating with Arizona, Hawaii, Illinois and the state of Washington, Nancy Honig said in an interview Thursday.
The program employs 24 full-time professional educators and other specialists, 15 of whom work in the Honig residence. Another 450 local school district coordinators also receive QEP payments.
The state education department also hired four consultants to work with local districts to implement the QEP ideas, the superintendent said.
Nancy Honig vehemently denied that QEP has been involved in any conflict of interest.
"Bill can't stop me from working," she said. "If I was selling textbooks, it might be a conflict of interest, but I'm not. I'm running a nonprofit corporation that in no way depends on the Department of Education for its existence."
QEP was floundering when she took over as president, Nancy Honig said, but she has raised more than $10 million to make it the largest parent involvement program in the state and one of the largest in the nation.
Honig, who has a degree in health services administration, said she ran three successful companies before getting involved with QEP and has proved her managerial abilities. She defended her salary as reasonable.
"I've raised more than $10 million" for QEP, she said. "If I just took one-tenth of that--the usual fund-raising fee--I'd have made a lot more than that."
However, both Honigs admitted that operating the educational program from the family residence was not a good idea.
"Politically, it probably wasn't a very smart thing to do," she said, because this made her husband vulnerable to attacks by Carrabino and other critics on the state board and elsewhere. "I wasn't thinking politically, I was thinking economically."
She said the $18,000 that QEP paid for leasing space in the Honig home last year was less than half the current market rate for that amount of office space.
"I'm not politically the most astute person," Nancy Honig said. "I certainly don't want to hurt Bill, but I'm afraid I don't think politically."
QEP is looking for a new office location, she said.
"Sometimes you have a blind spot," Bill Honig said in a separate interview. "It never occurred to us that this was going to be a political problem because it was such a great idea. . . . I guess we got zinged for political naivete."
The project that is causing the controversy is a formal version of what seems to be no more than common sense--that children do better in school when their parents are involved.