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

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg News/TNS) -

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.”

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.

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.”