Much has been written about the contributions to public life of Johnny Mockler, who passed away last week. Punditry often focuses on his work in school finance and in particular the Proposition 98 minimum school funding guarantee that the voters approved in 1988. As an initiative measure it arose out of an inability by the governor and legislature to settle on a system that would provide schools with adequate or at least stable funding. An initiative proposing an increase in taxes dedicated to schools had been defeated by the voters earlier that year.

It has been observed that the guarantee that he helped to fashion is so complex that it was necessary to go to him to determine its operation. Although he glibly accepted the adulation his genius showed in the original 1988 Proposition 98 measure that was simple and elegant. It simply required school funding (a combination of state aid and local property tax) to grow with the economy.  So if the economy was doing better and providing more tax resources, the schools would do better. The calculation basically meant that “you get what you got in the prior year plus growth.” And if the state got into fiscal trouble the requirement could be suspended by the legislature by a 2/3ds vote.  Neat and simple.

The complexity that obscured the elegance of the underlying objective of Proposition 98 was actually written by the legislature in 1990 and became Proposition 111 that, among a basket or other fiscal rules revised that simple standard for education spending.  That measure introduced a complex formula calculating the guarantee in an economic down turn and introduced us all the something known as the “maintenance factor.” The legislature and the administration at the time were worried that in an economic down turn new rules were needed to govern the funding guarantee. So the legislature and the administration went to work along with a cadre of staff (including Mockler, this author and many others) to find a way to balance the overall needs of the state and keep funding for K-12 education stable. In the end we all have lost sight of the ultimate goal that was to have education funding grow with the state economy. It was an example of the propensity of the legislature to turn a simple framework into something complex.

So do not thank Mockler for making the Prop. 98 guarantee so complicated that there are few people to explain it. You should thank the legislature for crafting amendments to it in Prop. 111 that did that. Instead remember Mockler for creating a simple framework for school funding: When the economy grows so does school funding. Maybe we should use his framework for thinking about a better model for school finance.