John Mockler dies at 73; architect of California school funding law
John Mockler, a leading education advisor for four decades who was a principal author of Proposition 98, the law that guarantees California’s public schools a sizable share of the state budget, died Tuesday in Sacramento. He was 73.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his daughter, Jessica Mockler.
Called a guru of public school finance, Mockler held a number of influential posts starting in the early 1970s, when he was a top education advisor in the state Assembly. The lifelong Democrat later served short stints as education secretary and executive director of the state Board of Education under Gov. Gray Davis, and ran his own consulting firm.
More recently he advised Gov. Jerry Brown, who said in a statement that Mockler “was able to put school finance on a solid footing that endures even today.”
Even foes of Proposition 98 respected him because of his deep knowledge of the multiple, bewildering formulas that make up the funding guarantee.
“He knew it cold,” former Gov. Pete Wilson said Tuesday of Mockler’s mastery of the minutiae of school finance. “We did not agree on Prop. 98, but I liked him. He had a great sense of humor. I don’t recall ever seeing John when he was not in good humor. I’m not sure you can make the same statement about me.”
In the late 1980s, Mockler joined then-state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, the California Teachers Assn. and others in a campaign to protect public schools from the whims of the Legislature and stabilize K-12 education funding. Critics said Proposition 98 was unfair to other large constituencies, including higher education, health and welfare, but voters passed the ballot initiative by a slim margin in 1988.
“He drafted it,” Honig said Tuesday of Mockler’s role in shaping the landmark law. “Back in the ‘80s we were so frustrated by the underfunding of schools. California was further and further behind. Prop. 98 helped the schools then, and it’s sure helping now as they try to catch up.”
It was meant as an antidote to another far-reaching law, Proposition 13, which restricted tax increases and wreaked havoc on school district budgets. Despite working hard for Proposition 98’s victory, however, Mockler said he was not a fan of it or any ballot initiative. Direct democracy, he once told journalist Joe Mathews, is “mob rule.”
Mockler was born in Chicago on Oct. 2, 1941, but grew up in San Diego. After graduating from El Cajon Valley High School at 16, he started college at the University of San Francisco. He later transferred to UC Santa Barbara, where he earned a degree in economics in 1963.
He launched into politics in 1964 as executive director of Youth Against 14, a campaign to defeat Proposition 14, a ballot measure that would have rolled back California’s fair housing law.
To raise funds for the campaign, Mockler organized a massive folk concert at the Hollywood Bowl that made him a fan of folk music for the rest of his life, according to California State Librarian Greg Lucas, a longtime friend.
In 1965 he became a legislative assistant to state Sen. Fred Farr, a Democrat from Carmel. He spent most of the 1970s in and around the Capitol, advising the Assembly Education Committee and the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. He also spent three years as a senior staffer in the Department of Education under Supt. Wilson Riles.
He left Sacramento in 1977 to become an independent watchdog in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he was an aggressive critic of the district’s budgeting and accounting procedures. He left that job in 1980 to form a private lobbying and consulting firm, Murdoch, Mockler & Associates.
When Willie Brown became Assembly speaker in 1980, he lured Mockler back to the Legislature as his top education advisor. Mockler took a pay cut to work for the government, but in exchange Brown told him he could choose his job title. Lucas noted that his friend, known for his irreverence, insisted on the title “Viceroy,” but the state printer refused to put it on his business card. Mockler settled for deputy chief of staff.
After crafting Proposition 98, Mockler was widely regarded as the only person who truly understood its intricacies. Even the Legislative Analyst’s Office described the law’s effects as “unintuitive or — even worse — counterintuitive.”
“In the arcane world of education funding, John Mockler is the Oracle,” Capitol Weekly wrote in 2009 when it ranked Mockler No. 83 on its list of the state’s 100 most influential power brokers.
Though he was primarily known for his role as chief architect of the funding law, “he was much more than a school finance guy,” said state Board of Education President Michael Kirst. He noted that during Mockler’s time on the board he pushed for an array of reforms involving curriculum, improving school quality in poor neighborhoods and raising math achievement, including incentives to increase the number of eighth-graders taking algebra.
Besides his daughter, Mockler is survived by his longtime companion, Carol Farris; a son, Robert; and five grandchildren.
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.