One More John Mockler Lesson for the Road

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The obituaries for John Mockler are focusing on his role in crafting California’s school funding guarantee, Prop 98, and the funding regime around it. That made sense—Prop 98 had a huge impact, and his command of the complicated measure was so great that I once suggested in print that California needed a constitutional amendment requiring Mockler to live forever. If only such a thing could be legislated.

But the focus on Mockler’s finance work, and on his public service and political work, shouldn’t distract us from recognizing the breadth of his commitment to California kids and schools. He thought about far more than funding. He was deeply grounded in the realities of kids – how they learn and how schools affect their educations and their lives.

He also had a great devotion to facts, and to trying to correct misimpressions. And one point he made often and very well deserves to be remembered by all Californians. That point? California’s schools are NOT failing.

Yes, the schools have challenges, they need more funding, and they need to do better, he’d say. But the repetitive slur that “our schools are failing” is wrong, a product of misuse and misunderstanding of statistics, he argued convincingly. The statistics showed that California schools have made huge gains – even in the face of underinvestment. A better question might be whether those gains are enough – and how we could accelerate them.

When I talked to him in recent years, our conversation was often about this subject. Mockler believed we needed a more accurate, clearer understanding of what schools were doing right – if we were going to do better by California children.

Mockler gave talks about the non-failure of California schools – and their progress. As someone who stole many of Mockler’s statistics and arguments from these talks for journalistic purposes, I highly recommend reading this interview of Mockler, laying out his case. I’d also suggest an excellent slide show with more figures.

To honor his memory, I’d suggest we all resolve to stop referring to California schools as “failing.” Yes, the schools need to do better. But so do we all.

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