Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman took the battle to her Democratic rival Jerry Brown's home turf this morning by touring Jefferson Elementary School in Oakland, where she slammed her opponent for not doing enough for the city's schools when he was Oakland's mayor from 1999 to 2007.
Whitman, however, found herself in a rhetorical bind as she praised the school district's achievements over the past six years while blaming Brown for letting the district down.
Oakland school board member Noel Gallo introduced Whitman during a news conference by noting, "For the last six years, we've been the most improved academically school district in the state of California, so I must recognize the leadership of our principals as well as our teaching staff and, most of all, our students and parents."
Whitman, however, criticized Brown for letting the state take over the bankrupt district when he was mayor although he had pledged to save the city's schools.
"He broke his promise to the people of California that he was going to turn this education system around," Whitman said. "So everyone is clear that the record of Oakland is dismal."
The candidate did give some explanation for the school's turnaround.
"It was the few parents, a couple of principals who said, 'You know we're going to take this into our own hands,' " Whitman said.
When reminded that Brown didn't have control of the school board, Whitman responded, "He should have led, and he should have focused on this. What you hear about Jerry Brown's tenure in Oakland is that he lost interest. He made a first attempt. When it wasn't easy, he lost interest and went off and did other things. The thing is you got to take accountability as a leader."
Brown spokesman Sterling Clifford said Whitman was repeating the same lies about Brown that she has for months.
"What Meg Whitman is saying about Jerry Brown's record in Oakland is not true," Clifford said. "It's intentionally misleading, it's wrong. Jerry Brown did not control the schools in Oakland. He did found two charter schools, which are both doing well.
"He was able to appoint some school board members," Clifford added, "but he didn't have control of the Oakland school board. Meg Whitman knows it."
Gallo said in an interview with The Bee that Brown had never visited Jefferson Elementary School.
"You can't take credit when you never show up," Gallo said.
Brian Rogers, a charter school board member who appeared alongside Whitman and Gallo, had more conciliatory words about Brown although he endorsed Whitman.
"You can't really put the blame on him," Rogers said in an interview. "The school district had its own problems. The board had its own problems."
In the news conference, Whitman said she also would consider eliminating either the state Department of Education or the office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction if elected governor. Brown has also said he would make do without his own education department.
"We can no longer have two gigantic bureaucratic structures because what we're doing is we're force-feeding the bureaucracy while we are starving the classroom," Whitman said.
Finally, Whitman repeated her criticism of Brown for suggesting that undocumented students be allowed to attend public colleges and universities.
"I think it's only fair that people who have played by the rules, they get first chance here, and I think it's very very important," Whitman said. "And everywhere I have gone in California over the last four or five days, they are quite surprised that Jerry Brown has been so far out on this issue."
Brown had hit Whitman on Monday for being insensitive to the struggles of such students.
"If Ms. Whitman's position is that she wants certain people in our society even though they've lived here for 10 or 15 years, they've gone to school, they've got A's and B's, she wants them in a subordinate position, I think she ought to say that," Brown said. "Because I can't believe that Meg Whitman would really say to these people, 'We don't want you to be skilled, we don't want you in college.' "
Whitman appeared at the school Tuesday alongside Republican secretary of state candidate Damon Dunn, although Dunn didn't speak to news reporters. The gubernatorial candidate toured several classrooms, with her husband Griffith R. Harsh IV watching from a distance.
From the school, she was scheduled to visit her campaign office in Oakland and then make stops at Napa and Sonoma this afternoon.