John Mockler, who wrote California’s landmark school finance law during a political and governmental career that spanned a half-century, died Tuesday of pancreatic cancer. He was 73.
Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988, was aimed at stabilizing school finances in the wake of Proposition 13, the iconic 1978 property tax limit, by guaranteeing education a “fair share” of the state’s revenues.
Mockler often joked that he made Proposition 98’s formula complex so that stakeholders in school finance debates would have to hire him to interpret it, and he could afford to send his children to Stanford University.
That may not have been his motive, but Proposition 98, placed on the ballot by the California Teachers Association and other members of the “Education Coalition,” is so complicated that the Capitol’s finance experts don’t always agree on how much money it requires taxpayers to spend on the state’s 6 million K-12 students and nearly 2 million community college students.
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The calculation of Proposition 98’s required spending and its relationship to other expenditures is the annual focal point of Capitol jousting over the state budget. Currently, it governs more than $63 billion a year in state aid and local property taxes.
“John Mockler knew education law like no one else and was able to put school finance on a solid footing that endures even today,” Gov. Jerry Brown said via Twitter on Tuesday as news of Mockler’s death moved through the Capitol.
Greg Lucas, the state librarian whom Mockler asked to write his obituary, describes him as “a lifelong Democrat who cut his teeth on San Francisco union politics in the 1960s and declared himself to be ‘a liberal but not a chump.’ ”
At various points in his career as the state’s top expert on school finance, Mockler served as executive director of the state Board of Education, former Gov. Gray Davis’ education secretary, the top education aide to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and an adviser to the California Teachers Association and other players in the school finance game.
“‘His brilliance, tireless energy and wicked humor never allowed bureaucracy or politics to get in the way of what’s right for kids,’” Lucas quoted Joe Nuñez, executive director of the California Teachers Association. “‘He solved more state budget crises on the back of a napkin than any governor and did it faster than any computer could be programmed.’”
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Mockler was “a true champion for our children ... I respected his opinion, as he was honest and provided excellent advice on how to best improve our educational system.”
Mockler was known as much for his sense of humor as his fiscal acumen, once asking for the title of “Viceroy” when Willie Brown hired him as his education adviser 35 years ago. The state printing office refused to produce business cards with that title, but when he left Brown’s staff, colleagues presented him with a poster-size card with that title.
Mockler was born in Chicago but reared in San Diego and received a degree in economics from the University of California, Santa Barbara, before beginning his career in politics organizing opposition to Proposition 14, a 1964 ballot measure that would have repealed California’s fair housing law. The measure passed but was invalidated by the state Supreme Court.
Mockler, an avid golfer and inveterate world traveler who logged three holes-in-one, is survived by his life partner, Carol Farris, two children and five grandchildren.