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Shirley Hufstedler, First U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements

By Education Week Library — August 18, 2017 2 min read
Shirley M. Hufstedler is sworn in as the nation's first Secretary of Education by Chief Justice Warren Burger, right, while her husband, Seth, holds a Bible, on Dec. 6, 1979. President Jimmy Carter looks on at left.

Biographical Information: Hufstedler was born Aug. 24, 1925, in Denver. She attended the University of New Mexico and then obtained a law degree from Stanford University. Before becoming the first U.S. education secretary in 1979, Hufstedler served as a federal appeals court judge and as a California appeals court judge. After shepherding the newly created Education Department through its first years, Hufstedler returned to practicing and teaching law in 1981. She then worked at the Morrison & Foerster law firm, in Los Angeles, for over 20 years. She died March 30, 2016.

Served Under: President Jimmy Carter

Dates of Tenure: 1979-1981

Fun Fact: She went to 12 different schools between 2nd and 7th grade.

Achievements in Office: 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.

Archives of Note:

Cuts Will Do Long-Term Damage, Former Secretary Hufstedler Says
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Shirley M. Hufstedler warned last week that “the budget struggles on the Potomac right now will have very serious consequences for every aspect of the American educational systems not only in this decade, but well into the next century.” (May 5, 1982)

Educators Remain Split Over Cabinet-Level Agency
When the U.S. Department of Education opened its doors on May 4, 1980, advocates of adding the agency to the Cabinet hoped the move would bring greater visibility and status to education issues, both within the government and in the eyes of the nation. Ten years later, opinion remains divided on the effect and desirability of Cabinet status for education. (May 9, 1990)

Standards Issue Puts Ex-Education Secretaries at Odds
All five former U.S. secretaries of education, meeting in a forum last month in Atlanta, agreed that it is important to hold students to high standards. But they failed to find common ground on who should set the standards, how students should be evaluated, whether money should be tied to the imposition and achievement of standards, and the proper role of the federal government. (Jan. 12, 1993)

Panel Urges Greater Focus on Immigrant Children’s Needs
Urging greater Americanization of immigrants, a bipartisan, congressionally established panel called last week for increased attention to and resources for immigrant children in school. (Oct. 8, 1997)

First-Ever Education Secretary Had a Groundbreaking Tenure at the Department
Shirley M. Hufstedler, who died March 30 at age 90, put her stamp on the new agency at a turbulent time during the Carter administration. (Apr. 1, 2016)

    Additional Resources
    Shirley Hufstedler Papers A guide to memoranda, correspondence, reports, briefing materials, and speeches relating to Hufstedler’s role as education secretary now stored at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
    University of Virginia’s Miller Center A brief biography focused on her role as secretary
    American Bar Association Women Trailblazers A brief biography, interviews, photos, and documents

    How to Cite This Article
    Education Week Library. (2017, August 18). Shirley Hufstedler, First U.S. Education Secretary: Biography and Achievements. Education Week. Retrieved Month Day, Year from https://www.edweek.org/policy-politics/shirley-hufstedler-first-u-s-education-secretary-biography-and-acheivements/2017/08

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