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Controversy Engulfs Superintendent Choice

PUBLIC school administrators across California are asking, "Who will take the place of Bill Honig?"

The former superintendent of public instruction left office in January after he was convicted on conflict-of-interest charges.

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Widely regarded as the loss of a major voice in education reform, Mr. Honig's exit has left rudderless a department of education embroiled in battles over issues from teachers' pay to textbook selection, curriculum development to bureaucratic reform.

"There is a major vacuum to be filled, no doubt," says state Sen. Gary Hart (D), chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Senator Hart says Honig left behind a decade of achievement in curriculum reform, improved student assessment, and higher standards and better training for teachers. "Perhaps most important," Hart says, Honig "was as visible and powerful a spokesman for public education as you can get...."

Honig was convicted of authorizing $337,509 in state contracts that paid for local educators to set up parent-involvement programs in schools in conjunction with a nonprofit organization run by his wife.

GOP Gov. Pete Wilson has nominated Republican state Sen. Marian Bergeson to fill out Honig's term. A statewide election will be held next year for a full term beginning in 1995. Subject to legislative confirmation, Ms. Bergeson would take the reins of the state board that oversees funding to about 1,000 school districts. The appointment would also position Bergeson favorably for election to the statewide office, which also is being sought by several legislators soon to be ousted by term limitations.

"The office of state superintendent in California is one of the most powerful in US education because of the size and clout of the state and its history as a bully pulpit to which people listen," says Alfred Lightfoot, a professor of education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. "The next superintendent will have even more of a role to play because of the state of chaos California education finds itself in," Dr. Lightfoot adds.

Bergeson's appointment is being attacked by Democratic lawmakers. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown says Bergeson's support of Governor Wilson's efforts to cut school funding by $2.3 billion last year paints her as an enemy of education.

Bergeson says she supported the Wilson cuts because of pressure to balance the state's budget - then running a $11.5 billion deficit. The real issue for this period of fiscal belt-tightening, she says, is not just securing finances, but leadership.

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"California schools are physically, fiscally, and morally bankrupt," she said in a recent telephone interview. "It's going to take a massive restoration of hope, commitment, and ability to get the restructuring and reforms we need. Without that commitment by the public, the kids of this state don't have a future."

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