It would have been hard for Gov. Gray Davis to pick a stronger candidate for the state Board of Education than Nancy Ichinaga. Recently retired after 25 years as principal of Bennett-Kew Elementary School in Inglewood, Ichinaga’s remarkable success in helping poor children of color excel academically has become legend among California educators.
Her track record — not to mention the fact that she’d be the only state board member with recent on-the-ground experience in a public school — would seem to have made her a sure thing for confirmation before the Senate Rules Committee. But Ichinaga has had to endure a last-minute smear campaign by the California Association of Bilingual Educators, which has at least temporarily delayed her confirmation. Ichinaga’s crime, in CABE’s accounting, is that she’s hostile to immigrant children.
Ichinaga has been an outspoken critic of bilingual education, believing instead that the earlier children are immersed in English, the more quickly they will master it. Even before Proposition 227 made Ichinaga’s philosophy law, she bucked the state Department of Education, which eventually granted waivers that allowed her to immerse kindergartners and first-graders in English while providing bilingual aides to assist them.
Who could argue with the results? Bennett-Kew has transitioned Latino children from a “Limited English Proficient” designation to “Fluent English Proficient” at more than twice the statewide rate. Half of Bennett-Kew’s children are black; most of the others are Latino. Ninety-nine percent are poor enough to qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Yet both black and Latino students score in the top third statewide on standardized tests. Compared to schools with similar demographics, Bennett-Kew is simply off the charts.
CABE suggests Ichinaga hasn’t adhered to the provision of Prop. 227 that allows parents to request that their children be taught in Spanish. But CABE has no hard proof. Ichinaga denies the charge, saying few if any parents ever wanted bilingual instruction. “I’m not about to say, ‘Oh no, you have to do it my way,” she says.
Given the results at Bennett-Kew, CABE’s choice of the Ichinaga appointment as a platform to defend bilingual education — a cause that has taken a huge political beating from California voters — is bizarre. With the Davis administration firmly behind her and the Senate Rules Committee poised to confirm her Wednesday, the attempt appears to have fallen flat. But what’s most outrageous is the nasty tone of the “action alert” the group circulated around the Capitol, which accuses Ichinaga of being “hostile to state enforcement of laws enacted to protect immigrant children.”
Ichinaga responds quietly: “I am a daughter of immigrants. My parents came from Japan. They were immigrant field laborers. I really identify with Hispanic children … more than any other group of kids. Their accusation that I am not for equity for these kids is wrong. I am for equity. That’s why I taught them so hard and so well.” If hostility to immigrant children is defined by a determination to teach them the bedrock skill they will most need to succeed in this country, then call her guilty.