John Mockler, a longtime and well-respected expert on California education policy and finance who wrote the school funding law Proposition 98, died Tuesday in Sacramento of pancreatic cancer. He was 73.

“John knew education law like no one else and was able to put school finance on solid footing that endures even today,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement. “He was also a great human being who I will deeply miss.”

Mockler held a number of top positions in California education and politics during his lengthy career. He served as executive director of the State Board of Education, was education secretary under former Gov. Gray Davis, and served as top education aide to Willie Brown when Brown was Speaker of the Assembly. Mockler was also a longtime member of the EdSource Board of Directors and founded an educational consulting firm, Mockler and Associates, in Sacramento.

One of his most lasting impacts on California education policy is authoring Proposition 98. The voter initiative, approved in 1988, sets guaranteed minimum funding levels for education in California. Mockler used to joke that he made the law intentionally confusing so that state officials would have to hire him to interpret it, according to an obituary in The Sacramento Bee.

“In the arcane world of education funding, John Mockler is the Oracle,” Capitol Weekly wrote in a 2009 article listing Mockler No. 83 on its list of California’s top 100 “power brokers.”  “(California political commentator) Joe Matthews once joked the Legislature should introduce a Constitutional amendment that Mockler must live forever, lest there be nobody left who understands Proposition 98. … Since education funding is implicated in every budget decision, Mockler is still a part of any change on tax policy or spending reductions in the Capitol.”

“His name is legend, over and over again,” said Ken Hall, president of the EdSource board of directors and founder of School Services of California, a financial, management and policy organization for school districts. Mockler made enduring contributions to educational policy, Hall said.

While education secretary and executive director of the state board, Mockler “helped create new standards, adopt new textbooks, improve teacher professional development and impose more accountability on public school operations,” California State Librarian and longtime friend Greg Lucas wrote in an obituary in Capitol Weekly.

Colleagues remembered Mockler for his quick wit, sharp intellect and no-nonsense approach, especially for those he felt had wrong-headed ideas about schools.

“He could count on the fact that he was right and you were wrong,” said Lawrence Picus, professor at the USC Rossier School of Education and a school finance expert who knew Mockler for 30 years.

Proposition 98 has been criticized over the years because it set funding for education based on a complex formula tied to fluctuating state revenues and not on student needs or adequate funding levels. But Picus said the measure was intended to be a floor, not a ceiling on education funding, and it’s important to remember the context of the times. When the ballot measure was written in 1988, lawmakers were considering using state lottery proceeds to cut other sources of state education funding. Prop. 98 was put before voters to prevent them from doing that, he said.

State Board of Education member and former EdSource Executive Director Trish Williams, who worked with Mockler for nearly two decades during his time on the EdSource board, said Mockler was “both a patient mentor and a tough schoolmaster when it came to staff understanding the arcane intricacies of California’s school finance law.”

“He often drove me crazy with his vigilance but just as often made me laugh out loud with his wit and blunt candor,” she said.

State Board of Education member Carl Cohn, also an EdSource board member, said, “He was a great storyteller and could talk about governors and members of the Legislature. I’m sort of a political junkie so it was great to be around someone like that.”

Mockler had “an interesting way of coining phrases,” Cohn recalled, including what Mockler called the ” ‘California schools suck industry,’ or ‘people who make their living hand-wringing about how bad California schools are,’ when in fact a lot of progress had been made in John’s view, especially with African-Americans and Latinos in the last decade or so. I will forever be grateful to him for that.”

Mockler was born in Chicago, grew up in San Diego and earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara. He is survived by his life partner, Carol Farris, two children and five grandchildren, according to The Bee.

Mockler’s “razor sharp wit was matched by his encyclopedic institutional history of California public education,” said Kelvin Lee, a longtime EdSource board member and former superintendent of Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District in Roseville.

“He always had a kind word and twinkle in his unashamed Irish eyes,” Lee said in an email. “I have lost a wonderful friend but not his endearing presence.”

Staff writers Susan Frey and Smita Patel contributed to this report.

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  1. John Affeldt 5 years ago5 years ago

    The only voicemail in my mailbox that I’ve never been able to bring myself to erase is one that came in randomly from John one morning thanking me for an op ed I wrote on this site. “It’s the only ***d*m sensible thing written on the topic in recent history.” Click.

    John, you were one of a kind and you will be missed.

  2. Gary Ravani 5 years ago5 years ago

    Few things can be as dry as a presentation on the labyrinth that is Prop 98 funding. Ran into John a number of times over the years when he was doing just that, but John always seemed to be able make it all seem interesting and even amusing. As Carl Cohn has noted, John's ability to rhetorically dismember the "Schools Suck Industry" was also done in a way that enraged that group by use of … Read More

    Few things can be as dry as a presentation on the labyrinth that is Prop 98 funding. Ran into John a number of times over the years when he was doing just that, but John always seemed to be able make it all seem interesting and even amusing.

    As Carl Cohn has noted, John’s ability to rhetorically dismember the “Schools Suck Industry” was also done in a way that enraged that group by use of wit and a deep knowledge of his subject.

    People come and go in Sacramento, as is the present condition of our political and policy process, but there are those whose loss diminishes us all. And John Mockler was one of those.

  3. Peter Schrag 5 years ago5 years ago

    Sad. We will all miss him.

  4. el 5 years ago5 years ago

    I don't know how much people who look at education issues today appreciate that in the pre Prop-98 era, how low education was on the public's political radar. I would say that in the late 70s and early 80s in California, that education was barely a top 10 issue, if that. For all the handwringing about schools today, our schools are far better than they were in those days, where funding was cut so hard … Read More

    I don’t know how much people who look at education issues today appreciate that in the pre Prop-98 era, how low education was on the public’s political radar. I would say that in the late 70s and early 80s in California, that education was barely a top 10 issue, if that. For all the handwringing about schools today, our schools are far better than they were in those days, where funding was cut so hard that the only cap on class size was the number of kids you could stuff in a room without the fire marshall shutting you down and at my white suburban high school, with only 5 periods offered, it was not possible to meet both the graduation requirements and UC requirements without attending summer school.

    So thank you, John Mockler, for all the work you did to make schools a better place for my daughter.

  5. Mike McMahon 5 years ago5 years ago

    Besides being a Prop 98 guru, John Mockler bought perspective to the California’s investment in public education. Here is a copy of presentation to the California School Boards Association in 2007 (before the Great Recession). http://www.mikemcmahon.info/MocklerForum07.pdf

  6. Jeff Camp 5 years ago5 years ago

    The structure of Ed100.org owes a great deal to John Mockler.

    At an EdSource Forum presentation years ago, John simplified education as something like “Students and teachers, spending time with the right stuff in a place called school.” With additional feedback from John, his simplification became the ten-chapter backbone of Ed100.org:

    Education is
    Students
    and Teachers
    spending Time
    in Places for Learning
    with the right Stuff
    in a System
    with Resources
    for Success.
    (So Now What?)

  7. Doug McRae 5 years ago5 years ago

    John was a self-described junkie for good data and information on CA's K-12 education programs. He had wonderful instincts for separating wheat from chaff, relevant information from noise, and arriving at priorities for actions. And he was a rare voice willing to tell governors and powerful legislators when they had it wrong. When I met John on statewide assessment issues more than 15 years ago, when he was Ex Dir SBE and Sec Educ, he … Read More

    John was a self-described junkie for good data and information on CA’s K-12 education programs. He had wonderful instincts for separating wheat from chaff, relevant information from noise, and arriving at priorities for actions. And he was a rare voice willing to tell governors and powerful legislators when they had it wrong.

    When I met John on statewide assessment issues more than 15 years ago, when he was Ex Dir SBE and Sec Educ, he always advised me to bring something green when I came to the SBE. I never knew if he meant something Irish, something environmental, or money — but I settled on bringing handouts on green paper. His sense of humor appreciated my sense of perspective. His substantial influence on many K-12 policies in Sacramento, far beyond just finance issues, will be deeply missed.