Nominating Honig to State Board of Education is risky but worthy

He did more than anyone to raise standards

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Jerry Brown had no sooner nominated former California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig to the state Board of Education this week than the ugly part of the Honig story crept back into the news: In 1993, Honig, possibly the most influential school leader in California’s history, was convicted on a felony conflict of interest charge and forced to resign. Three years later the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor, which now again makes him eligible to hold public office. But it may again haunt him –and haunt Brown for naming him.

The details of the old charges are too long to lay out in detail in this piece. In essence the hard-driving Honig was accused of steering some school district consulting contracts for parent training to his wife Nancy’s nonprofit Quality Education Project, which was headquartered in their San Francisco home.

It was a reckless thing to do, as some of Honig’s friends told him even then, but Honig was so certain that the services the QEP provided were the best thing for the schools that got them that the warnings were ignored.

The felony charge always smacked of a political witch hunt. Honig, a Democrat, never made a cent from the deal, and neither did QEP, whose funding all came from foundations. No tax money was ever involved. But as superintendent for more than a decade he had made a broad array of enemies, from the two Republican governors he accused of shortchanging the schools to the then-still-powerful creationists he rebuffed in the writing of curricula and the choice of textbooks.

Instead of bringing felony charges, Dan Lungren, the Republican attorney general who prosecuted Honig, could have charged him with a misdemeanor from the start, which would not have required removal from office. As Honig’s lawyers argued, there was never any evidence that Honig intended to profit from the deal. Lungren, who ran for governor in 1998, and lost, is now a member of Congress from the Sacramento suburbs.

The judge at the trial, who had made some questionable evidentiary rulings against Honig  – Honig’s state of mind, he ruled, was not an issue –  had changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican and was himself seeking appointment to a higher court in a Republican administration. Ironically, the judge was also a Jerry Brown appointee.

Honig was also a key figure in the campaign in 1988 to pass Proposition 98, the minimum school funding formula that has vexed governors ever since. It came as a direct response to Gov. George Deukmejian’s decision in 1987 to refund $1 billion-plus to the taxpayers because, Deukmejian argued, the state had hit its legal spending limit. That refund hit the schools especially hard.

In 1991, after a series of ugly turf fights with Honig, the conservatives that Deukmejian and his successor Pete Wilson had put on the Board filed a lawsuit that eventually led to an appellate court decision trimming Honig’s policy-making and appointing authority.

The Board, which had the constitutional authority for state education policy, had almost certainly been neglected by Honig, but the decision did little to clear up the convoluted arrangement in which the independently elected superintendent is supposed to carry out the policies of a group of gubernatorial appointees.

But for all the battles Honig waged and the errors he made, some of which he himself later acknowledged, Honig may have done more to raise California’s education standards than any single individual since.

Honig, as a member of the State Board (to which Brown named him during his prior years as governor) and then as superintendent after his election in 1982, was among the first to sound the alarm about the flabbiness of California’s curricula and testing program – and did so well before school reform and the imposition of tougher standards became the national issues they’ve been for most of the past three decades.

Before his conviction and removal from office in 1993, some people thought he might make a strong candidate for governor. That was always a near-impossibility, though it might have worried a few Republicans at the time.  But Honig was a great national force for more rigorous academic standards and less fluff in school curricula.

Jerry Brown’s decision to appoint Honig again is obviously risky, both for him and for Honig – “something old, something new,” he said when he mentioned it in a private conversation on inauguration day. But in terms of experience, brains, and promise for better schools, he could hardly have picked a better person, old or new.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.


Filed under: Commentary, Jerry Brown, State Board of Education · Tags: , ,

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  1. Jim Mills says:

    Can we take a moment to parse this?
    “Honig was accused of steering some school district consulting contracts for parent training to his wife Nancy’s nonprofit Quality Education Project, which was headquartered in their San Francisco home….Honig, a Democrat, never made a cent from the deal, and neither did QEP, whose funding all came from foundations. No tax money was ever involved.”

    1) So Honig, personally, never made any money off the contracts:
    This is not a criterion for corruption, if favors are going to one’s spouse.  They lived under the same roof, and benefits to one were available to the other.

    2) Honig nor QEP never made a cent:
    Why, pray tell, would someone operate a business — even a “non-profit” — if it never brought in enough money to cover its expenses?  Even “non-profits” generate income for their employees and principals.  In fact, in the world of education (where “profit” has always been a dirty word), it is not at all unusual for organizations to operate under the “non-profit” label while the prinicipals pull down salaries that equal or exceed what a dirty “business person” would pull out of a similarly-sized enterprise.  I assume that the cash was welcomed by Nancy, or she would have refused the project.

    3) All of the funding came from foundations, not taxpayers:
    Oh, and you can’t steal or misappropriate from foundations, can you?  Using your position to direct a cash-generating contract to a spouse is ok, if you’re not (directly) misappropriating public money?  Just foundation money that was allocated to a public entity and was supposed to be put to good purpose for that entity?

    Please.  Short cuts are short cuts.  Our public education establishment is already ethically challenged.  At the very least, now that Hong has been appointed, let us hope that the friends who previously cautioned him against “recklessness” are still associating with him, and that next time he listens to them.

  2. Paul Muench says:

    Seems to be a suitable selection for Jerry Brown.  Neither of them have much to lose as far as reputation or political future.  So they are ripe to be men of action.  And if they follow through on what I’ve heard, I have hope that can be good for California.

  3. John S. Leyba says:

    Interesting post.

    I graduated 8th grade in 1993 and passed the Golden State Exam for Algebra with honors that year. For my achievement the state sent me a certificate signed by Mr Honig, who was um, honored on the news most evenings at the time. Very strange….

    Obviously I have less direct knowledge of his conflict of interest charges than a scholar and newsman of Mr Schrag’s stature, but I do want to point out to my friends in local education that one need not profit directly for something to be a conflict of interest. I’ll let courts sort out the legalities, but…

    I have seen many a school board member steer contracts to “their friends” or associates. Whether the friends later give them an envelope of cash under the table, later hire them as consultants, throw fundraisers in their honor, donate to their favorite non-profits, or simply pick up more than their fair share of the dinner tab, all of these are varying shades of inappropriateness and wrong.

    “But this is best for the kids!”
    “We are only trying to help!” or “I have no financial stake in this!”
    …are only excuses for lacking transparency, circumventing open bidding processes, and engaging in self-dealing. If Mr. Honig’s wife’s organization wanted to keep it on the level, either he needed to not be SPI, or she needed to cease affiliation with the organization. Seems like a simple standard to me.

    Given his knowledge, good experience, and bad experience, hopefully he can use this second chance for redemption of his legacy AND the schools. That’s my hope.