Ready students? Begin. California’s public schools (a) were some of the best in the U.S. 20 years ago, (b) have suffered profound decline since, or (c) have been revitalized during the past year by an electrifying, tough ex-teacher named Bill Honig, the state’s new superintendent of public instruction. The answer is (d) all of the above, and many top educators now say the bespectacled Honig, 46, has an important lesson to teach the entire country. “A traditional, academic education worked when we were children,” Honig says. “It will work for our children.”
Since his election to the $42,500 post a year ago, Honig has persuaded the state legislature (and new skinflint Gov. George Deukmejian) to increase the school budget by $800 million (the first real increase since Proposition 13 was passed in 1978); jumped teachers’ starting salaries from $13,500 to $18,000; made it easier to fire incompetent instructors, and toughened both classroom discipline and standards in all 1,034 California school districts. “He has shown more foresight, energy and vigor in pushing through comprehensive reforms than any other state superintendent in the nation,” says Bernard Gifford, dean of education at the University of California at Berkeley.
Not everyone gives Bill Honig high marks. Some teachers reportedly wore black armbands the day after his election, protesting his campaign charge that 10 to 15 percent of them were incompetent. (Now, says Marilyn Russell Bittle, president of a 160,000-member state teachers’ union, “We’re cautiously optimistic”)
Nearly all, however, give him “A” for effort in his come-from-behind election victory and in his dedication to schools. Three months before the primary, polls showed Honig, then an obscure state education board member, had only two percent of the vote. At a family conference, Bill and second wife Nancy, 40, a self-made businesswoman, knew they needed campaign money. “We decided to risk everything,” says Nancy. They took out three new mortgages on their 14-room Victorian home in San Francisco. They mortgaged their share of the 67-acre Napa Valley vineyard Bill and siblings had inherited from his father. Sons Michael, 21, and Steven, 20, sold their 17-foot power boat, and Michael forked over his college tuition. The family fund-raising only stopped when 8-year-old Jonathan tearfully asked his parents whether he’d have to sell his video game. The effort raised some $2 million, nearly half of which Honig spent on a hard-hitting TV blitz that earned him second place in the primary and a landslide in the runoff against Wilson Riles, the 12-year incumbent. “Riles never knew what hit him,” Honig says.
The revenge was particularly sweet for someone who paid classroom dues in the early ’70s when “the radical reformers,” as he calls them, “said, ‘Let the kids alone and they will flower’ “—an attitude that he now calls an “abdication of responsibility.”
That Honig was teaching at all was something of a rebellion for someone raised in a wealthy, liberal, Jewish, fourth-generation San Francisco family. His father, Louis Honig Jr., owned the West Coast’s biggest independent ad agency, helped found the radical magazine Ramparts and took pride in making Nixon’s White House enemies list. Bill’s mother, Miriam, remains a prominent patron of the local opera and symphony.
Honig grew up an absentminded, intellectual youth who once picked up a valuable antique plate during an engrossing conversation and swatted a fly with it—killing fly, smashing plate. (In later years, he would go to the office each day with a Wonder Woman lunch box rejected by son Jonathan.) After graduating from public high school, he studied two years at Stanford, then picked up his B.A. and law degree at Berkeley. He clerked at the California Supreme Court (as did future Gov. Jerry Brown) but later found life in a top corporate law firm unfulfilling. “There was no excitement in taking $1 million from one big company and giving it to another big company,” he says.
Like many others at the time, he dropped out. He joined the Teacher Corps, picked up a master’s degree, and in 1972 helped found an alternative public school in San Francisco’s depressed Hunters Point district. Though then ambivalent about “open education,” Honig began to turn against it when he saw how well his disadvantaged students responded to demands. “The blacks wanted a tough education, and the hippies wanted nothing,” he recalls. “If you made the argument for academics, everybody looked at you like you were crazy.”
Wife Nancy had a similar reaction when they met at a 1971 party. (Bill’s first 10-year marriage ended in 1969.) “I thought he was my knight in shining armor,” Nancy remembers. “I thought, ‘Nan, you’re a pretty sharp cookie, and you’re going to be able to get him back into law.’ It came as a shock when he said, ‘Forget it, honey. If you want to make money, you make it.’ I thought he was nuts.” Bill continued teaching, becoming in 1979 the superintendent of a Marin County school district (“the hotbed of hot tubs,” he says). In 1975 former law-clerk colleague Jerry Brown appointed him to the State Board of Education.
Nancy did make the money, starting a one-woman consulting firm that she built into Honig-Schmelzer, a multimillion-dollar company that employs 85 people to provide financial services for doctors and hospitals. “It’s not that Bill and I reversed roles; we eliminated them,” Nancy says. “He couldn’t change a light switch, but he was the one who always made sure the kids did their homework.”
These days Nancy, who has become known as “The First Lady of Education” in California, has sold her share of the firm to devote her time to Bill’s cause. “Bill told me he would need my help when he ran for office,” she explains. “I said, ‘I owe you a lot, Bill, but I don’t owe you that much.’ He had to convince me that public education is important. Now it’s a holy war for me. We are in a gut-level fight for education.”
All in all, Honig’s sudden prominence has raised some questions about whether he himself might be a potential gubernatorial candidate in 1986. Nah, says Nancy. “To Bill, there is nothing more important than what he’s doing right now.” Bill says he’s merely trying “to teach kids that they count.” Those who can count back a few years, however, might remember that Harry Truman started out as a teacher.