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Shirley M. Hufstedler, First U.S. Secretary of Education, Dies at Age 90

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 30, 2016 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.
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Shirley M. Hufstedler, who was appointed as the nation’s first secretary of education in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, died Wednesday at age 90 in California, according to her law firm.

Hufstedler served as education secretary from 1979, the same year that Congress created the U.S. Department of Education, to 1981. Prior to leading the Education Department, Hufstedler served as a federal appeals court judge and as a California appeals court judge. (The Education Department began actual operations in May 1980.)

After leaving her position as secretary, Hufstedler returned to private practice, and had worked at the Morrison & Foerster law firm in California for the last 20 years.

Hufstedler continued to speak out on various education issues, however. In 1982, she criticized reductions in federal education funding under President Ronald Reagan, saying that minority children were being “abandoned” by the Reagan administration. “Savage cuts were taken last year in programs designed to help school districts meet the needs of the most-disadvantaged youngsters in the country,” she said.

In 1991, on a panel with the three other former U.S. education secretaries at the time, Hufstedler made it plain she thought K-12 funding was still problematic, saying “school finance is an unholy zoo,” and that “the main problem with poor school districts is that they don’t have any money.”

In the 1990s, Hufstedler also worked on issues related to immigrant children and argued for federal incentives to be used to help students meet high academic standards.

While serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, Hufstedler dissented from a majority opinion in Lau v. Nichols that held that the San Francisco school district had not violated the rights of Chinese immigrant students in the district who did not receive supplemental instruction in the English language. Ultimately, in 1974, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

Although Hufstedler was not the sort of person to speak extensively about her accomplishments, her pride in her past work in education was clear, said Miriam Vogel, senior of counsel at Morrison & Foerster in its Los Angeles office, where Hufstedler worked.

“She was extremely proud to have been the first person to hold that position and was deeply honored by the president’s confidence in her,” Vogel said.

At the law firm, Hufstedler served as a mentor to many of the younger partners, and to women in particular, through a hands-on and very patient approach, Vogel added.

“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.