OAKLAND — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger spoke of kindness to one's fellow man but talked tough on education reform Thursday morning during a visit to the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

The governor — in town to tout a "Million Meals Initiative" he and his wife are championing — said he'll "never" sign a bill that the Assembly Education Committee put forward a day earlier to meet federal requirements for winning up to $700 million in "Race to the Top" school funds.

The Assembly was expected to vote on the bill later Thursday.

"It's not a race to mediocrity, it's a race to the top," he said. "We want to make sure we get a good bill out there."

California must apply by Jan. 19 for its share of the $4.35 billion available nationwide. The governor favored a bipartisan state Senate bill that also would enable the application, but with some significant differences.

Both bills would force the lowest-performing schools to adopt radical intervention methods, such as firing the principal and up to half the teachers, or closing the school, or letting the school become a charter school. Both also would remove an existing cap on the number of California's charter schools; and would involving tracking students from elementary school through college for good outcomes.

But the bipartisan bill the governor favored would have allowed parents to pull their kids out of failing schools and send them anywhere else in California, or to petition failing schools to adopt specific recovery strategies. The Assembly bill lacks those provisions, but would impose new accountability standards and governance policies on charter schools.

Schwarzenegger said Thursday that putting limits on charter schools and parent choice isn't the way forward. California mustn't "do the same things we've done with public schools" because that's "a formula for failure," he said, vowing his administration will work with lawmakers on a compromise before the Jan. 19 deadline.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, responded later Thursday that he's "working hard to help reconcile the differences between the houses to produce the strongest possible bill." The Assembly bill still must go through the state Senate — including its education committee, chaired by state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, who authored the Senate bill that Schwarzenegger favors.

Schwarzenegger and his nominee to fill the vacant lieutenant governor's office, state Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, toured the bustling food warehouse on Edgewater Drive, chatting with Alameda County Community Food Bank Executive Director Suzan Bateson and California Association of Food Banks Executive Director Sue Sigler. California first lady Maria Shriver simultaneously was at a similar event in Los Angeles.

They were kicking off the Million Meals Initiative, in which surplus money from the California Governor & First Lady's Conference on Women will be donated to provide more than a million meals to needy Golden State families, and to draw attention to their plight.

Sigler said more than 12 percent of Californians struggle to put food on the table every day, and more than 4 percent miss meals regularly.

Schwarzenegger said in this "season of sharing, "... now is the most important time to go out and help" families so cruelly hurt by recent economic hardship.

"The important thing to remember," he said, "is that we recognize this has been a tough two years."

Presented with a gray flannel food-bank vest, the governor helped dozens of volunteers pack purple reusable grocery bags with food, carefully laying canned goods in the bottom and dry goods on top as journalists' cameras clicked and whirred.

The WE Connect Program, of which the Million Meals Initiative is one project, aims to help California families become more financially secure by providing information on community-based services and government programs and resources. Launched by Shriver in 2005, it's based at www.weconnect.net.

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