When Congress approved the creation of a U.S. Department of Education as its own cabinet-level agency in 1979, it did so only after encountering opposition from both sides of the aisle. Many conservative lawmakers were concerned that it would be a bureaucratic intrusion into education, while some liberals were worried its creation would make getting additional federal aid for education more difficult, among other concerns.
Then, when President Jimmy Carter, a supporter of a separate education department, made his selection for the nation’s first secretary of education, he picked Shirley M. Hufstedler, at the time a serving federal appeals court judge and former California Court of Appeals judge who did not have a background in education policy.
Her time as secretary was short—although she was sworn in by Carter in December 1979, the Education Department only began operations in May 1980, and she left in early 1981, when President Ronald Reagan took office.
But Hufstedler,, helped organize the department during its earliest days, provided a steady hand at the tiller, and helped Carter show Congress that the department would not be the tool of any particular group.
“She was serious about bringing people together and having them work in a serious way,” said Marshall “Mike” Smith, her chief of staff from December 1979 to August 1980 who is now a consultant for foundations, “and there was a lot of uncertainty.”
And Hufstedler, while not a K-12 policy expert when she took over the department, had dealt with education while on the bench and had firm beliefs about its importance.
In a 2007 interview for the California Appellate Court Legacy Project, Hufstedler recalled that during her 11 years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit from 1968 to 1979, the opinion she wrote that she was particularly proud of was a dissent in Lau v. Nichols, a case that involved the San Francisco school district’s failure to provide English-language instruction to around 1,800 children of Chinese ancestry.
The 9th Circuit ruled that this was not a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. But in a dissent, Hufstedler argued that children of Chinese ancestry in San Francisco schools were being denied equal protection by not receiving supplemental services. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 9th Circuit’s ruling in the case.
“[B]y the time I became Secretary of Education, we then had in place the so-called Lau Regulations, which was a reflection of that decision and about equal protection for youngsters whose initial language was not English,” Hufstedler said in the interview. “So I thought that was an achievement that I’ve always enjoyed a lot.”
Getting the Department Started
After leaving her position as education secretary, Hufstedler returned to private law practice, and for the past two decades worked at the Morrison & Foerster firm in Los Angeles. She worked as a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine, the University of Iowa, and the University of Vermont. She also was a law professor during the spring of 1982 at Stanford Law School, and was a visiting fellow at St. Catherine’s College at Oxford University in England in 1996. She served as a trustee at the California Institute of Technology.
Hufstedler is survived by her husband, Seth Hufstedler, who also works at the Morrison & Foerster firm in Los Angeles, as well as a son, Steven, and several grandchildren.
Recalling the difficult circumstances facing the department at the beginning, Hufstedler showed in the early days and months that the department could “go about its business” in a noncontroversial fashion, said Jack Jennings, then a Democratic staff member on the House education committee who met with her on several occasions.
The U.S. Department of Education has been led by 10 secretaries appointed by six presidents since its creation.
Shirley M. Hufstedler: 1980-1981 (President Jimmy Carter)
Terrel H. Bell: 1981-1985 (President Ronald Reagan)
William J. Bennett: 1985-1988 (Reagan)
Lauro F. Cavazos: 1988-1990 (Reagan/President George H.W. Bush)
Lamar Alexander: 1991-1993 (President George H.W. Bush)
Richard W. Riley: 1993-2001 (President Bill Clinton)
Rod Paige: 2001-2005 (President George W. Bush)
Margaret Spellings: 2005-2009 (President George W. Bush)
Arne Duncan: 2009- (President Barack Obama)
John B. King Jr: 2016- (Obama)
“She was the type of logical, rational person who would try to build something in a way that would last,” said Jennings, who went on to found the Center on Education Policy, a think tank in Washington. “So I think she was a good person to have at the beginning of the department, rather than someone who was just out looking for publicity, or was looking to use it to catapult to another position. She was a good choice.”
As the department’s first secretary, her chief responsibilities were helping to shift education policy work from what was then the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to the new stand-alone cabinet-level education department, and sharing input on key staff appointments during and after that transition.
She also grappled with questions as to whether the Education Department would begin overseeing Native American and military schools, according to Smith. And Hufstedler also backed the Youth Act of 1980, a bill in Congress with Carter’s backing that would have created new opportunities for high school students to transition to the workforce.
“She was a bright, smart person with no knowledge about what she was getting into in many ways,” Smith recalled. “She had a huge learning curve that was very steep.”
A Mentor and Public Servant
After leaving the department, Hufstedler continued to participate in public discussions about education, particularly with respect to school funding.
In 1982, she criticized Reagan’s cuts to the federal education budget, saying that the administration was “abandoning” minority children and hurting districts’ efforts to support “the most-disadvantaged youngsters in the country.”
And while discussing education on a panel with three other former U.S. education secretaries in 1991, Hofstedler lamented the state of school finance as an “unholy zoo” and added that “the main problem with poor school districts is that they don’t have any money.”
In a March 30 statement, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. called her a “trailblazer and a champion for equity, defining the department’s role as a protector of civil rights.”
She also argued for the federal government to use incentives to help students meet standards. And she led a U.S. Commission on Immigration that, in a 1997 report, recommended that rapid acquisition of English should be the top priority for any English-language-learner program for immigrant children, and that students should be taught the “common civic culture that is essential to citizenship.”
During her later years at Morrison & Foerster, Hufstedler served as a mentor to many of the younger attorneys, particularly those who were women, said Miriam Vogel, senior of counsel at the law firm.
“I know how much she valued education, and how she tried to be the best teacher she could be in whatever situation she was working,” Vogel said.
In the 2007 interview, Hufstedler said that her time as education secretary was difficult in several respects. But asked why she left a lifetime appointment as a federal judge to be Carter’s education secretary, Hufstedler responded: “I think that if a president of the United States asks you to do something for the good of the nation, you have to be awfully selfish to decide you’d just as soon keep your lifelong position doing something you know how to do. I had a tremendous amount to learn; I’ve never thought that was an error. I learned a great deal, of course.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 13, 2016 edition of Education Week as As First Education Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler a Pacesetter