Dan Morain

John Mockler left deep footprints

John Mockler
John Mockler Sacramento Bee file

Here’s some of what John Mockler left behind: Public schools will receive $65.7 billion in the coming year, $5 billion more than this year.

Mockler was the brilliant wonk behind California’s school funding initiative, Proposition 98 of 1988, and a behind-the-scenes giant of public policy. He died of cancer Tuesday at age 73, and we’re worse for it.

I don’t claim to have known Mockler well, though I occasionally joined him and his buddies at their table at Gallagher’s. The Scratch Drinkers Club, they called it. They weren’t scratch golfers, the joke went, but they certainly were scratch drinkers.

More often, I’d call him when I struggled to understand something about school funding during the 1990s when I tried to write about the budget.

“I feed the pig. Other people weigh the pig,” he’d say, when he was lobbying to make sure that his client, the Los Angeles Unified School District, got its share, and then some.

He was being flippant, but he cared deeply about schools. He asked for time at The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board a few years back and arrived with charts and data points showing how vastly different California schools are than schools in any other state.

Eleven percent of our students have special needs, and a fourth are English language learners. Despite his best efforts, California still starves its public schools of money.

The charts showed that the staff-to-student ratio in California was the thinnest in the nation; that the percentage the state spends on schools has declined dramatically over the decades; and that the percentage of Californians’ income spent on public schools has declined.

Despite all that, reading and math scores were rising, and achievement by black and Latino students was improving. We on the editorial board could believe him or not. But here were the facts, he said.

Mockler started early in policy and politics. At 22, he worked on the campaign to defeat Proposition 14, the 1966 initiative that rolled back a progressive California law that sought to end housing discrimination. Courts later struck down the racist initiative.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was a core part of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown’s public policy team. In 2004, Steven Thompson, a colleague on that team, died. Thompson “symbolized that one bright moment in California when the Legislature tried to become a co-equal branch of government,” Mockler told me. Mockler symbolized that bright moment, too.

Mockler wrote Proposition 98 but didn’t vote for it. He hated initiatives, though his proposition provided him ample job security. He was one of the very few people who understood it.

He described himself as a “liberal but not a chump,” said his good friend, State Librarian Greg Lucas. Jerry Brown and other Democrats offered kind recollections in the obituaries.

Republicans with whom he tangled praise him too, which speaks loudly. In the 1990s, when school funding dominated epochal budget battles, Mockler was there to help find solutions.

“I liked him in spite of Proposition 98,” Gov. Pete Wilson told me. “He was a very bright, very clever guy. I miss his good humor.”

“We argued about everything,” said public affairs consultant Bob White, who was Wilson’s chief of staff and worked for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He and Mockler had made plans to get lunch soon.

“I’m so disappointed that I couldn’t have had that last lunch so I could tell him how wrong he was on everything,” White said. “I loved every minute of it.”

Mockler should serve as an inspiration. He led a good and important life by shaping public policy in lasting ways. For young people who aspire to make a difference, there’s plenty left to be done in California.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.

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