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

  • Appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head new agency
  • Republican Party has sought to abolish the department

Shirley Hufstedler, who served as the first U.S. secretary of education following the creation of the department by President Jimmy Carter, has died. She was 90.

She died Wednesday in California, according to Radley Moss, director of communications at San Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster LLP. Hufstedler was senior of counsel at the law firm’s Los Angeles office. No cause was given.

Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election limited Hufstedler’s tenure at the Department of Education to 14 months. In that time, she oversaw the development of the 17,000-employee agency, which combined more than 150 programs that had been under five other departments.

It opened for business on May 4, 1980. Three days later, at a White House ceremony, Hufstedler said the department’s role would be as “a helping, supportive friend of education, as a simplifier and streamliner of regulations and paperwork, and not as the holder of an unlimited federal purse and not as a power beyond the reach of local decisions.”

Acorn Symbol

She called on the president’s daughter, Amy, then 12, to unveil the department’s flag, which depicts an acorn -- “the seed of knowledge and the never-ending renewal of life and learning,” Hufstedler said -- beneath an oak tree.

Almost from day one, the department was targeted by critics as an example of money-wasting federal overreach. In fiscal 2016 it had a budget of about $68 billion. Abolishing the department was a plank in the Republican Party presidential platform from 1980 to 2000. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, said he would shrink or consolidate it with another agency.

In his annotated “White House Diary” published in 2010, Carter said establishing an independent education department “had been a goal of mine since I served as chairman of our county’s board of education in the 1950s.”

Carter’s Motivation

Education “was overshadowed by health and welfare” when it was overseen by what today is the Department of Health and Human Services, Carter wrote. “My hope and expectation were that the new department would devote almost all its resources to making an effective contribution to education and supplementing the primary role of state and local governments.”

Throughout Carter’s presidency, Hufstedler was mentioned as a possible nominee should a seat open on the Supreme Court, which at that time had never had a female justice. Carter didn’t have a chance to fill a seat, and in 1981, Reagan made Sandra Day O’Connor the first woman on the highest U.S. court.

In a 2005 interview with CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Carter said Hufstedler “probably” would have been his first choice.

Shirley Ann Mount was born Aug. 24, 1925, in Denver, the second of two children of Earl Mount, a building contractor, and Eva Mount, a schoolteacher. She and her brother, Kenneth, grew up where their father’s jobs took them, which by high school was Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Legal Training

She received a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the University of New Mexico in 1945 and a Bachelor of Law degree from Stanford University in 1949. She practiced law in Los Angeles from 1950 to 1961 and was a legal consultant to California’s attorney general, Stanley Mosk, in a dispute with Arizona over water rights to the Colorado River that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1961, California Governor Pat Brown appointed her as a judge of the Los Angeles County Superior Court, and she won election to the post the next year. Brown named her to California’s Court of Appeal in 1966. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, making her, according to the New York Times, the nation’s highest-ranking female judge.

On Oct. 17, 1979, Carter signed the law creating the cabinet-level Department of Education. He assigned Vice President Walter Mondale to direct the search for a secretary.

‘Short List’

Hufstedler, invited to meet with Mondale in Washington, “realized I wasn’t just on the short list, I was the short list,” she recalled for a 2005 article in Phi Delta Kappan, a magazine focusing on education.

Hufstedler considered her prime qualification that “I hadn’t had any political dealings of any kind with anybody in education,” according to the article.

She was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 81 to 2.

When Reagan became president in January 1981, Hufstedler returned to practicing law and taught at the University of California at Irvine, Stanford University and other schools.

Her firm, Hufstedler & Kaus, became part of Morrison & Foerster. She had a son, Steven, with her husband, Seth Hufstedler, also an attorney.

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