Remembering the First Secretary of Education


On March 30, Shirley Hufstedler, the nation’s first Secretary of Education, died at age 90. Before and after her public service as a member of President Carter’s cabinet, Hufstedler had a very distinguished career as an attorney and as a judge. Her many accomplishments are highlighted in the New York Times obituary, “Shirley Hufstedler, U.S. Judge and Cabinet’s First Education Secretary, Dies at 90,” written by Sam Roberts, and in an earlier profile in the New York Times Magazine, “The Judge Goes to Washington,” by Phyllis Theroux, which was published shortly after the Reagan administration assumed office (June 08, 1980: SM, 11).

Although she served just slightly more than a year as Secretary of State, Hufstedler wrote the following open letter to his successor in the Reagan administration, which I think is of considerable interest because it suggests both how much and how little things have changed over the last thirty-five years.


Dear Successor: You are the last of the President-elect’s choices to be named–perhaps because the post looked less than inviting, with some supporters of the new Administration clamoring for dissolution of the department.

You may be surprised that you were picked. I can tell you that when I was tapped, my surprise was complete. I didn’t have an inkling until Vice President Mondale called and asked me to come to Washington. At the time, I was burrowed into the judicial load that had accumulated during a recent holiday from my judicial duties. A friend told me that if I had any sense, I would take the next plane back to the Himalayas.

I reached the White House expecting to be interviewed as one of several possibilities on a short list, only to discover I was the list. I felt like a girl who had been invited to meet her fiance’s family only to find herself walking down the aisle.

Once you’ve been sworn in, things will move rapidly. Immediately afterward, you will take a crash course in governmental transition. For better or for worse, you will be matriculating at the right institution. You will be the 11th head of education to serve in the past 14 years. Given this state of perpetual transition, some of the staff at ED, as your new department is known, may show less enthusiasm about your arrival than you may think is appropriate. While you will be embarking on an exciting new experience, many of them have spent their working lives in a bureaucratic revolving door and have understandably come to take changes at the top pretty much in stride.

It may help you to judge my state of mind after 13 frenetic months in office if I answer again the question put to me most frequently since Election Day 1980: ”If you had known on Oct. 29, 1979 (when Vice President Mondale called), what you know today, would you have given up lifetime tenure as a Federal judge to become the first Secretary of Education?” The first time the question was asked, my reply was, ”Yes.” I give the same answer now, with even more enthusiasm.

Building a new Cabinet-level department taught me more than I learned in all my years on the bench, and I learned something every day of those 18 years. I hope you will be spared last summer’s record temperatures at our Maryland Avenue headquarters, and I hope that the political heat will also have abated by the time you take office.

Incidentally, about your new office, which is located in what is charismatically called F.O.B.-6 (Federal Office Building-6): The rugs are spotted; the windows don’t open; it is too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. All in all, a fine incentive for you to get out on the road to meet our children and their teachers.

You will, however, have little time for travel. Enormous problems of budget, organization, legislation and regulation will confront you constantly. Each problem will be worthy of your undivided attention, but none will ever get it. You must keep all of these balls in the air at the same time, or one of them is sure to hit you on the head. While you juggle, you must contend with hundreds of interest groups, ranging from advocates for more sex education to those who are horrified at what children are already being taught.

All the while, you must obey, simultaneously, the President, the Congress and the courts–even when they are moving in different directions. And you must explain to the nation, through the media, what it is that you are doing and why on earth it is necessary.

The first thing you must tackle–and I mean literally the first–will be your departmental budget. My hand was barely off the swearing-in Bible before it was on the budget book. The President, I was informed, would expect my budget appeals immediately – preferably by the time I got back to my office.

Within four months, I had to master budgets for three fiscal years comprising roughly $45 billion. You will have to do the same in even less time. One of the flaws of our governmental structure is that so many critical budgetary decisions must be made almost the instant that a new Cabinet officer takes office. (By law, the Federal budget must be submitted within 15 days of the reconvening of Congress in January of each year.) Moreover, nothing will make or break your reputation and your effectiveness – in Washington, these often come to the same thing–like the speed and the detail with which you master this task.

In one respect, at least, you are fortunate. You will not, as I did, have to create a new budget process while trying to digest pieces from several different old ones. You start with a unified and responsive system in place and working well. It will be a comfort to you in the dark days of Office of Management and Budget appeals.

Throughout your budgetary travail, you will contend with good news and bad news on the organizational front. Some good news is that you will not have to start from ground zero and find departmental homes for 160 separate programs and agencies from five Cabinet departments and the National Science Foundation. The bad news is that you may face pressure to dismantle the tidy structure created during the past year and scatter its pieces back throughout the Federal Government (for instance, returning responsibility for the education of the children of some migratory workers back to the Labor Department).

More good news is that we have been able to negotiate adequate office space for your employees. The bad news is that Congress has not yet appropriated the monetary wherewithal. Meanwhile, your personnel remain scattered all over Washington, the nation and the world (chiefly 17,000 schoolteachers and administrative staff for military schools, mostly abroad, who are now in the process of being incorporated from the Defense Department). ED has space problems which would intimidate the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In fact, that’s one of your problems. NASA is occupying part of your space.

When I came to Washington, many education programs had the reputation of being poorly managed. The good news is that the implementation of management by objectives, the imposition of strict financial controls and the appointment of an inspector general are helping to reverse that image. The bad news is that, thanks to the Carter Administration’s freeze on hiring -which your President-elect hopes to make even chillier -ED’s inspector general has fewer than half the people he needs to squeeze out waste and inefficiency.

There are, however, at least two pieces of unconditionally good news: First, we now know that it is possible to run a Government transition efficiently and economically: ED opened its doors a full month ahead of schedule and $9 million dollars below the estimated cost. Second, we also know that affirmative action is fully compatible with excellence: Some 60 percent of ED’s assistant secretaries and other top officials are women and minorities, a record achieved without the slightest concession on quality. As you begin, you will face one obstacle that I did not. You will need to convince your President that your department, which formally came into being in May l980, is necessary. It may even be necessary to convince yourself. Whatever your present inclination, I am optimistic that you will succeed in doing both.

I doubt that President-elect Reagan, whose credo is economy and efficiency in government, will decide to undo, at considerable cost in time, money and energy, the stability, the managerial integrity and the financial accountability which have been built so painstakingly during the past year.

My pride of workmanship aside, ED will survive because it is needed. You will become an effective advocate for its defense because you will soon understand the need as few people in America do.

There is a certain perspective on American education that is difficult to achieve without at least a short sabbatical on the banks of the Potomac. That is neither because the schools have been ”federalized” nor because you are about to be. The heartbeat of our system is still where it has always been, and where it belongs, at the local level. What you will gain in this job, however, is an appreciation of how immense the enterprise really is, how closely intertwined are all of its parts, and how similar are the basic problems everywhere.

This is an appreciation born of standing first in line to receive shocks that will reverberate through the whole system. It will come to you when you are awakened in the night with news that Cuba’s gates have opened wide and a quarter-million adults and children, speaking no English, are en route to our shores and our classrooms. It will come to you with urgent phone calls about war in the Middle East, and with the resulting surge in the cost of fuel oil for heating classrooms and gasoline for school buses. It will come to you when national problems like these break local school budgets, sending hordes of district superintendents and college presidents to ED–and so to you–in search of relief, whether or not you are empowered to supply it.

In the future, there will likely be more problems, not fewer, whose solutions are beyond the resources of even prosperous communities and large states. We Americans were slow to acknowledge that. Indeed, we were among the last industrialized nation in the world to create a Cabinet-level department for education. I do not believe we want to be the first to dismantle one. After all, those phones will not stop ringing in the night because a different man is in the White House.

National problems require national solutions. They require an institution–ED–and a person–you–with responsibility for formulating a coherent national policy. Let me cite just a few of the national problems you will find on your plate when you sit down to lunch at your desk the first day on the job.

The Federal Government is obligated to insure equal educational opportunity for disadvantaged youngsters. Some fear that the new President will ignore the needs of those children. I hope that anxiety is not well founded. Equal access to education is not a matter of local preference or personal convenience. It is a fundamental right, a truly national responsibility. When the new President fully appreciates that fact, you will have the task of meeting that responsibility.

It will soon become apparent to you, and to President-elect Reagan as well, that some of our more severe educational deficiencies threaten the nation’s security. Fewer and fewer of our students, for example, are learning even the rudiments of science and mathematics. Meanwhile Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union have vastly improved their performance in these areas. Every year, more than three million Russians graduate from high school with two full years of calculus, while this country turns out fewer than 125,000 high school graduates a year who have had even one year’s instruction in the subject. In a supremely technological age, that is a failing with enormous national and international implications. For hardpressed local school districts, already feeling the squeeze of inflation, it is beyond easy remedy. The ball will be very much in your court.

We have a similar national interest in upgrading our language capabilities. Our schools may be the worst in the industrialized world at teaching languages other than English. (A cynic might suggest that they are not very good even at teaching English.) In the Soviet Union, there are almost 10 million students of English, but there are only 28,000 students of Russian in the United States.

One result of this lag is a diplomatic service notorious for its inability to staff embassies with people who speak local languages; another is the loss of business to countries, like Germany and Japan, whose representatives are taught to communicate directly with their overseas customers.

For reasons of history, culture and geography, few American school districts have much incentive to worry about languages other than English. The United States Government has plenty of reason to worry, however, and you will be at the center of its concern.

Even in the face of such problems – and I have not begun to exhaust the list -there will be those who maintain that education’s needs can be addressed without a Cabinet-level department. They are wrong, and for reasons quite apart from the gains in organizational rationality and efficiency which resulted from creating ED. The case for Cabinet status comes down to one thing: your ability to get things done; in a word, power.

Last year, the Office of Management and Budget took an ax to my first proposed budget for ED. Because I was in the Cabinet Room when their representatives argued that the cuts would affect just 2 percent of the nation’s children, I could counter that ”just 2 percent” translated into ending special assistance for fully a million children, most of whom were already facing heavy odds in life. The cuts were healed. The difference between a Commissioner of Education and a Secretary of Education is that a commissioner would not have been at the Cabinet table at that critical moment.

You will face many similar situations. Competition for every dollar in the Federal budget will be fierce, and if you are not able to speak directly to the President on occasion, education will lose out.

Considerations of status and access also play key roles in White House decisions that go beyond money: like how national policies on energy and re-industrialization will make use of our educational resources. They have even greater importance outside the White House, in matters like cooperation between departments. Clout may seem a fairly intangible thing from beyond the Potomac, but in Washington nothing is more real or more carefully calculated.

You will find, for instance, that your prestige and authority as a Cabinet Secretary will greatly ease the progress of important education legislation through the Congress. During the past year, representatives of the nation’s universities wanted more student assistance added to the Higher Education Act during re-authorization. The White House, while sympathetic, faced the absolute necessity of controlling the Federal budget. Each side had its legislative allies and the whole of Congress reflected the tension.

At several points it appeared that the legislation was hopelessly entangled and could not be passed. Each time, however, we were able to enter the fray and to work out necessary compromises. Without a Cabinet-level Secretary, authorization of the Higher Education Act would have been far less likely. And without that act, the nation’s colleges and universities would have been in serious trouble.

Not every piece of legislation has such far-reaching implications. and not every Congressional crisis will require your personal attention. But when someone with stature is needed for dealings with Congress, there is no substitute for a Cabinet officer. The same is true, I might add, when dealing with education officials of Cabinet rank from other nations. On Capitol Hill you will find that the legislative process moves to its own rhythm, with little regard for your marching orders from the White House. You will find, too, that the issues addressed in Congress do not go away when a bill’s fate has been decided. I worked hard through much of my time at ED on the Carter Administration’s major domestic initiative for the year, the Youth Act of 1980. Despite many obstacles, we drafted the bill and steered it through the legislative shoals, only to see November’s election transform almost certain passage into likely inaction by a Congress considerably changed in political composition.

Even if this particular bill should disappear, however, the problems which prompted it will not. Unemployment among our young people, particularly among the poor and minorities, is devastatingly high. They need better academic preparation. They need work skills and basic training in how to get and keep jobs.

Also on the agenda will be the reauthorization of major pieces of legislation – like the Vocational Education Act, coming up for renewal in 1981. The hard day-to-day task of shepherding a complicated bill like that through the Congress can only be learned on the job. It involves a hundred small confrontations and a thousand small compromises. There is an old Congressional maxim, the truth of which will soon be evident to you, if it is not already: ”Good legislation is like good sausage. You should never watch either one being made.” Now you must not only watch, you must help.

On the executive front, your name will soon be substituted for mine in lawsuits all over the United States. You will become the object of court orders compelling you to aid 3.5 million American youngsters who do not speak English well enough to function in school; to integrate higher-education systems; to desegregate elementary and secondary schools and to provide services promised by Congress to handi-capped youngsters throughout the country. This is one type of legal prominence that I will Page 48 50 gladly relinquish. As Adlai Stevenson put it, ”To the victor belongs the toil.”

You will find that there is a good deal less leeway in these situations than sometimes appears from the outside. ”To understand a fact is not to change it,” as George Bernard Shaw once pointed out. Court orders have that same quality. Seeing the difficulty of compliance does not alter the necessity. Problems that prompt court orders are equally uncooperative. They do not disappear because the nation is tired of them.

There is better news, however, about the internal regulatory process. When we began last year, many regulations required by law were one or two years overdue. I set three goals: promptness, minimum paperwork and full consideration of public comment.

In one year, the wait for program regulations has been cut from 519 to 240 days. (An example would be the new regulations required to carry out the Asbestos School Hazard Detection and Control Act of 1980. Final regulations for the act, which was signed by President Carter on June 15, are expected to be announced before Jan. 20.) The number of offices signing off on regulations has been cut from 23 to 5. The unbelievable practice of writing regulations for programs that exist only on paper has been discontinued. (In 1978, Congress authorized a health-education program, which although it was never funded, had 62 pages of regulations formulated for it under the old requirement procedures.) And we commissioned a Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching study on ways to ease the paperwork burdens of teachers and school administrators (the interim report should be on your desk when you take office). We also put into action a system which invites public comment while there is still plenty of time to make changes.

Much unnecessary red tape still remains to be cut. In trying to implement programs, you will find that there is no substitute for the Cabinet Secretary status, which will make you newsworthy in a way that Commissioners of Education never were. Because television and the press will follow your activities, you can lead the media into the classrooms of America. Without your leadership, the nation would see only the schools in trouble. With your help, the country will also see the everyday world of real teachers working with real students, who are actually learning!

I hope you will use these opportunities to teach America about our schools, as well as to articulate important national problems in education. You can do much to put the needs of America’s children on the front pages where they often belong.

Of course, all of these considerations are important only if the country believes that education itself is important. They are serious matters only if we believe that education is as serious a matter in the life of the United States as ”Commerce” or ”Labor,” or ”Agriculture,” those Cabinet veterans.

Politicians may debate the point. Economists may wonder whether an enterprise on the scale of ”only” $150 billion a year qualifies for a place at the President’s table. A columnist or two may pretend that there are no issues in education worthy of national attention. Others may fret that Americans, helpless in the face of their Government, will casually surrender a 200-year tradition of local control into your grasping hands. But the American people are wiser than that.

We long ago gave our answer to the question of education’s place in our national life. We answered by building the greatest educational system in the history of the world. And we built it by refusing to let our schools be trapped in the past while the world was rushing headlong toward the future.

Americans have always understood that our children and their education are not simply a part of the future. They are the future. That didn’t change on Election Day. The needs of our children cannot be dropped one year and picked up the next without damage. Children must be attended to every day, with love and with imagination, for there is no second chance. The people of this nation understand that. They expect their leaders to understand it as well. One final note: I hope that you will steal some time to think. If you are like me, you have long since learned that the busier your life, the greater the value of an occasional hour spent quietly turning over a problem or an idea. It is ironic that in Washington the people with the most responsibility for making the most important decisions often have the least time, and the least space, to think about them.

At home in California, my study looks out onto the garden and the mountains beyond. This helps me to get the fullest possible benefit from the rare hours I have for contemplation. Frankly, I never found such a place in Washington. I hope that you will.

There is plenty to think about if one can transcend the daily crises and take a longer view: Secondary schools are visibly less successful than their elementary and postsecondary counterparts. Teaching’s declining pay and status are making it less and less attractive to our ablest young people. The whole delicate interaction between public and private education is changing. All these problems, and many more, will require some creative leadership in the years ahead, and there will be few in the country so well placed as you to provide it.

We are ripe for some new approaches to old problems. It is my firm conviction that meeting the problems of education in the 1980’s will require us to bring existing resources together in new ways. That means closer connections, for example, between private industry and public schools. It means considering ideas like building schools near work sites so that buses taking children to school could also take their parents to work. The opportunities are there. You can play a major role just by making people alive to them.

After Jan. 20, I will take a three-month vacation–my first prolonged respite from paid employment since I was 14 years old. With my husband–whom I have missed sorely this past year of intermittent continental commuting–I will head back to the Himalayas. Then I plan to redo our house and re-landscape the garden, both of which are showing my absence, before resuming my professional career.

Until then, all of us on the outgoing ED team will do our best to help you as you prepare to take on one of the most challenging and exhilarating jobs in all of public life–a job that carries with it the greatest responsibility of all: responsibility for the nation’s children.

I am sure you will find, as I have, that a great many people are willing to fight over children, but precious few are willing to fight for them. Your job, shorn of the paper and the bureaucracy, is to fight forcefully and joyfully for those kids. It is not always an easy or a popular fight; but even the smallest victories can touch the lives and brighten the futures of hundreds of thousands of children. With each such victory you will feel, as I do today, happy to have passed this way.


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