In the Classroom, Honig Still Seeking To Win Converts

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SAN FRANCISCO--As he strides purposefully toward his destination, Bill Honig is like a machine that is racing full speed ahead, same as ever. It is everything around him that has changed.

Once the larger-than-life superintendent of California's public schools, Mr. Honig walked into repeated political dogfights in the state capital. He was the outspoken champion of school funding and classroom reforms and was mentioned as a candidate for governor or U.S. education secretary.

Now, however, he is starting over--a convicted felon. And on this day in his new life, Bill Honig is lost. He is talking about education-reform schemes and his take on the news from several states as he walks across the campus of San Francisco State University, where he is still a stranger. He stops at the humanities building and the business building and the science building as he looks unsuccessfully for the classroom where he is scheduled to lecture.

On an elevator in the science building, a student wisecracks about Mr. Honig using the elevator to go up a single floor. "Well, we don't know where we are,'' he answers politely.

After an accounting professor steers him toward the right building, Mr. Honig assures a guest, "By the process of elimination, we are about there.''

Bill Honig's crusade has always been about winning converts; only the venues have been changed. Even though he has moved from a bully pulpit to a lecture hall, Mr. Honig shows no lack of intensity as he describes the importance of sweeping school reform.

This afternoon, he faces about 50 first-year teaching students, whom he introduces to the movements toward national teacher and curriculum standards and efforts to overhaul instruction and testing.

Since being removed from office in February, Mr. Honig has, if anything, become a more fervent champion of the reform concepts he advocated and pioneered in California. Time away from the political and policy grind has given way to time for reading, mostly the work of reform theorists. And his sentence of community service has sent him back into other classrooms, where, he says, he has gained new perspective.

Back in the Classroom

Plunging full time this fall into teaching has reassembled an audience, albeit a much different one, and quickened the daily pace. While missing from the California scene and the national stage, Mr. Honig carries on.

In his lecture to the education students, Mr. Honig describes the concept of "systemic reform,'' the effort undertaken in California and other states to tie together reforms in governance, curriculum, teaching, and assessment. He drives home to the students that such ideas are not vague, theoretical notions, but are crucial to revamping the nation's public schools.

"You are all going to be the shock troops if you believe in it,'' he says.

In the second half of the class, Mr. Honig answers questions and discusses the state's social-studies framework, a voluntary curriculum guideline meant to define the concepts students should know at various grade levels.

One student challenges the state's assertion that children be taught that education, civic values, and service can arm them to change society, arguing that such notions ring hollow to poor and disenfranchised students. The statement leads to a discussion on civic participation, in which Mr. Honig delivers an eloquent defense of the link between individual participation and social change.

If his audience by the end is not converted, it is impressed. "He's good,'' one woman says. "I didn't think he would be like that. He's really down to earth.''

Common Sense and Judgment

At one point in his talk with the future teachers, Mr. Honig answers a question about dealing with bilingual students by noting, "Common sense, tempered by professional judgment, is very helpful in doing the right thing.''

If his recent troubles and the debate over Mr. Honig himself have been about anything, they turn on questions involving common sense, professional judgment, and doing the right thing. Even after a jury took only three hours to find him guilty on four conflict-of-interest charges, Mr. Honig still claims he is innocent.

The case, which involved a 1991 raid of Mr. Honig's home here, involved four state contracts worth $337,000 for work done by a nonprofit parental-involvement program run by his wife, Nancy, from the couple's house.

Prosecutors from the state attorney general's office charged Mr. Honig under a seldom-used state law and did not dispute that districts received the services the program promised.

The judge in the case did not allow any discussion of the program's merits or the financial status of Mr. Honig, the scion of a wealthy family. In his instructions to the jury, the judge also explained that a conviction would be required if Mr. Honig had the potential to benefit from the contracts, regardless of whether he actually did. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1993.)

Mr. Honig was sentenced to repay the state contracts, complete 1,000 hours of community service by the end of October, and spend four years on probation. A one-year sentence in the county jail was suspended.

The judge did not follow a prosecution request that Mr. Honig be barred from performing community service near children, on the grounds that he was an unfit role model. Mr. Honig, who is appealing the ruling, has completed about a third of the required community-service time, much of it as an aide to a 5th-grade teacher in a school in his neighborhood.

Driving home from the class at San Francisco State, Mr. Honig admits that it was a mistake to award a state contract to his wife's firm. But it was a mistake in a political sense, he insists.

"What I learned is that you don't just trust the system to operate and think that truth will win out. It might win out,'' he concedes. "But if they want to get you, they'll get you. It is all a gamesmanship and power thing. I should have been more careful of that stuff.''

Clashes With Conservatives

Indeed, "they'' have dealt Mr. Honig a definite setback. At 56, he had expected to be considering other options next year, when his third four-year term in office was due to expire.

To hear Mr. Honig and his supporters tell it, "they'' have been after him from the start. But then, he has been after them as well, and still is fighting.

Conservative Christian activists, for example, were strong opponents of some of Mr. Honig's curriculum reforms. Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, both Republicans, fought frequently with him over school funding, as did Republican leaders of the state board of education, with whom he clashed over executive power.

Those conservatives, he maintains, combined to plot his downfall. His opponents found a way to chase him prematurely from Sacramento, while saddling him with a permanent ban on public office.

To many of the people at whom he has aimed his accusations, though, Mr. Honig is a proud and arrogant man who is living with the consequences of his own overweening ambition.

Either way, he is starting over.

'A Different Role'

Mr. Honig says he had imagined moving on to head a foundation or some other prominent position that is now out of reach. He also had thought about a role in the federal government, he says, but notes that groups such as the Council of Chief State School Officers, of which he was president at the time of his conviction, have shied away.

"You get cut off a little from the national discussion because of political fear,'' he admits. "But I like education, and I would be happy in any variety of roles. No matter where you are involved, you still deal with the same issues.''

His effort to rebound from his political devastation led him to San Francisco State, where leaders of the education program were eager to bring him on board. It was the most attractive of the handful of offers he had.

For now, Mr. Honig describes it as a rewarding position. In addition to the guest lectures, he teaches Management of Curricular and Instructional Improvement, a graduate course that allows him to deal with local school administrators. He also heads the fledgling Center for Systemic School Reform, a project that allows him to work with other districts and states interested in California-style systemic reform.

"I want to be involved in helping people think through that. There are so many detail questions, but they say success is in the details,'' Mr. Honig says. "I can still help out, it's just a different role to play.''

'Reform Is Necessary'

Over dinner, Mr. Honig offers his views on school reform and sketches the role he can play, tearing through ideas like he was hunting for a diamond in a laundry hamper.

Fine dining goes unnoticed when Mr. Honig begins talking about what is missing in school reform. That, he says, is finding a way to engage the majority of school districts that are not on board with state reform efforts and not involved in various reform networks.

"Unfortunately, for the people in charge, they don't get what they don't get,'' he explains. "Being a part of a discussion on how we make states effective is what I'm interested in.''

"I worry that people make fundamental mistakes and nobody blows the whistle,'' he says. "People need to know that restructuring only really works if you build and build and build until it all comes together.''

"What do principals and superintendents need to succeed--that's the question we need to ask,'' Mr. Honig argues. "I'm afraid most statewide plans are not focused enough that way. People are talking in slogans and a lot of the discussion is disconnected from the real world. There are a lot of key issues we've got to find ways to talk about.''

"I think I'm still a part of the reform party in this country, because I really believe public education can work and that reform is necessary,'' he says. "Although people have tried to exclude me, I still feel a part of that group.''

Mr. Honig is painfully aware of the obstacles that his ordeal has created, and while he says educators and people in California are generally supportive of him, he has taken a back seat in that state's pivotal battle over school choice.

"I miss the voucher fight,'' he says. "When Bill Bennett comes out here, I really want to go tear into him.''

Yet, while his legacy in some ways is one of unfinished business, he expresses satisfaction that his programs and goals continue despite his absence.

"I'm a good explainer, and obviously I'm interested and passionate. I started that job at a time when people said there was no power, that the system was too complicated, and I would be too controversial,'' he recalls. "The point is: You make what you can out of it, and a lot of it was force of personality. Frankly, after all those wars, you get tired.''

"But the ideas are still powerful ideas,'' he says, putting a flourish on another emphatic declaration. "And you make what you can.''

Vol. 13, Issue 06

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