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Craig Foster

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Craig Foster Obituary

Craig Foster, whose mastery of school finance and ferocious advocacy changed the educations of millions of Texas children, has died at age 69.

For several months, Foster had been undergoing an experimental treatment for a rare cancer, uveal melanoma, at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He died Monday night with his family at his bedside at Sid Peterson Memorial Hospital in Kerrville.

Craig Foster had been undergoing treatment in Houston for rare cancer.

Driven by the conviction that every student in Texas, regardless of background, was entitled to the best education the state could provide, Foster was instrumental in tearing down and helping to rebuild the state's school finance system.

"The fact that poor school districts, who literally were being told to make bricks without straw, enjoy something nearing equity in funding today is, in large part, because of Craig Foster," said Bill Ratliff, a former lieutenant governor, who was chairman of the Senate Education Committee at the height of the school finance battle in the early 1990s. "That's a huge legacy for Texas."

Foster's is a legacy left in relative anonymity, friend and colleague Wayne Pierce said.

Pierce succeeded Foster as executive director of the Equity Center in Austin, which Foster organized along with superintendents and officials from districts with low property tax bases to fight for more equitable distribution of state school funding.

"There are millions of Texas schoolchildren who go to school every day, to a better school with better facilities that he helped make possible, and they don't even know Craig Foster's name," Pierce said.

There was a time when nearly everyone with an interest in how tax money was spent on the state's schools knew Foster's name. Foster came by his appreciation for education in a stepfamily of teachers, said his wife, Denise. Foster taught for a semester after graduating with a degree in psychology from Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., but left for a hitch in the U.S. Coast Guard, she said.

The Coast Guard brought Foster to Galveston in the 1970s, and he went to work for the Galveston County Research Council. The council's efforts to stimulate economic growth immersed Foster in property tax issues. His work later for the Intercultural Development Research Association in San Antonio helped wed his property tax expertise to the issue of school finance inequity.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a lawsuit filed in San Antonio that the Texas school finance system was unfair to poorer school districts but that the remedy ought to be decided by the state.

Foster understood early on that to do battle with the state, less affluentdistricts would have to band together to fight, said David Thompson, an attorney who represented both the state and groups of school districts in a decade of lawsuits brought in Texas beginning in 1984.

Scott McCown, a former state district judge from Austin who presided over three of the lawsuits, said, "It took an extraordinary act of courage for these districts to get together to fight this. They were biting the hand that fed them, suing the state."

Foster's organizing would have mattered little without his relentless use of data, said Buck Wood, counsel for the Equity Center and a friend of Foster's.

Guided by Foster's expert testimony, the Texas Supreme Court in 1989 ruled the school finance system unconstitutional. The court three times rejected plans by the Legislature to narrow the gap between the spending of the wealthiest and poorest school districts. On the fourth try, in early 1995, the state Supreme Court ruled that although the Texas system was flawed, it met the standards of the state constitution.

"I always pictured him as a guy with his sleeves rolled up, not afraid to get his knuckles dirty in the fight," said former state Rep. Paul Sadler, who served as chairman of the House Public Education Committee during those years. "He was a ferocious fighter for equity on behalf of the children of Texas."

Foster continued to try to close a spending gap that remains in the school finance system. After 18 years as executive director of the Equity Center, he continued to serve as an adviser to Pierce. He was a citizen member of several state-appointed school finance and property tax committees.

"It gave him great joy to know that he had improved the lot of those who needed it," Denise Foster said. "It was never for the recognition of self. He knew it in his heart."

Survivors — including Foster's wife, sons Robert and Adam, and daughter Rachel — are planning a celebration of Foster's life in lieu of services. A time and place have not been set. Foster will be cremated, his wife said. Donations may be made in his name to cancer research, she said.

[email protected]; 445-3663

Published in Austin American-Statesman from Dec. 18 to Dec. 23, 2007
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