Miss America's Platform Ruffles Partisan Feathers

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Miss America, who is scheduled to visit Capitol Hill this week, has already been given a taste of partisan politics.

The newly crowned beauty queen, Shawntel Smith of Oklahoma, has been asked by Sen. James M. Inhofe, a conservative Republican from her home state, to stop giving the impression that she supports one of the Clinton Administration's signature education initiatives.

A spokesman for Mr. Inhofe confirmed last week that the senator had met with Ms. Smith to ask her to avoid cheerleading for the federal School-to-Work Opportunities ACT as she travels the nation promoting education programs with similar goals.

Ms. Smith, 24, had worked with her state's school-to-work program while a student at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., and opted to make the concept the "platform issue" she would promote after being chosen as Miss Oklahoma.

And three days after she was crowned the new Miss America in Atlantic City, N.J., last month, Ms. Smith appeared at a New York City news conference to help Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich announce the distribution of $161 million in federal school-to-work grants, including a $3.2 million grant to Oklahoma. The two Cabinet officials spoke glowingly of the increased attention Ms. Smith's endorsement of school-to-work programs could bring. (See Education Week, Sept. 27, 1995.)

"I don't think she ever intended to have a political focus," Kerri G. Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said last week.

Ruffled Feathers

But some feathers have apparently been ruffled. Senator Inhofe recently paid "a courtesy visit" to Ms. Smith during which he explained why he voted against the federal program when it was enacted last year, said Gary Hoitsma, his press secretary. He said Mr. Inhofe believes that such efforts should be handled by the private sector, and he is "not in favor of the large federal program to do this sort of thing."

"Nobody's mind was changed, but she seemed very receptive to what we were saying," Mr. Hoitsma said.

Charles E. Welch, the chief executive officer of the Miss Oklahoma Scholarship Pageant, said last week that Sen. Inhofe had told him "some of the Republicans felt that the school-to-work platform of hers was similar to some of the Democratic programs, and that this is a Hillary Clinton issue."

"I talked to Senator Inhofe and I told him what the situation was: that this was her platform all along; that she was as politically naive as anyone could be; that it was not a political issue for her; that she was concerned about what was best for youth," Mr. Welch said.

The school-to-work concept was championed in 1990 by a study commission that included Mrs. Clinton, as well as education, business, and labor leaders. The Bush administration backed the idea in earlier legislation, and the 1994 bill had bipartisan support.

Officials of the Miss America pageant declined last week to comment on the issue or to make Ms. Smith available for an interview. They said she will discuss details of her school-to-work platform this week at a news conference introducing her to members of Congress.

The annual event is traditionally hosted by the pageant winner's home-state delegation, and Mr. Inhofe's office has taken the lead in planning it this year, Mr. Hoitsma said.

Leonard Horn, the president of the national Miss America organization, boasted at the September news conference with Mr. Reich and Mr. Riley that his pageant had moved to "the cutting edge" in addressing social and economic issues.

Ms. Smith may be learning what a prickly place that can be.

Vol. 15, Issue 06

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