Nominating Honig to State Board of Education is risky but worthy

January 6, 2011

(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.

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