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Educator and Bilingual-Ed. Foe Remains in Romney’s Corner

By Nirvi Shah — August 30, 2012 3 min read
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Tampa, Fla.

A decade ago, Lincoln Tamayo helped convince then-gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney to support a ballot-initiative that would drastically change the education of English-language learners in Massachusetts.

Tamayo now runs a pair of private middle schools, one of them in Tampa—not far from where the Republican National Convention is being held this week—the other in nearby St. Petersburg, Fla. He says he hopes a future President Mitt Romney will take the idea he endorsed back then nationwide.

In 2001, Tamayo was overseeing middle and high schools in Chelsea, Mass., including bilingual education classes where students learning English were taking all or most of their subjects in their native languages.

“We were stunting their ability to be successful in our schools,” Tamayo said during an interview Wednesday. “Most people understand the concept of language acquisition—you need English to be successful in this country.” We were chatting at Academy Prep Center of Tampa, one of his private schools for low-income students where the students are in school up to 11 hours a day and nearly 11 months of the year.

Born in Cuba, Tamayo said he learned English by being immersed in it at Our Lady of Perpetual Hope school in Tampa. His parents left Cuba when he was just six months old, settling in Tampa after stints in Mexico, Panama, and Puerto Rico and elsewhere in the United States. But living in a three-generation household, he said he heard and spoke Spanish almost exclusively until kindergarten.

Fast-forward to the early part of the millennium, and Tamayo got the spot in Chelsea through a job at Boston University. (He’d previously ended pursuit of a career in intelligence after being disqualified because of an uncle who married into the family and who had been a member of the Cuban military).

When Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz looked to Massachusetts to end bilingual education as he had in California and Arizona, Tamayo was tapped to run the campaign and left his job in Chelsea schools.

With Democratic leadership in Massachusetts strongly opposed to the measure, including Romney’s Democratic opponent in the 2002 governor’s race, Shannon O’Brien, “it forced Mitt Romney to look at what we were doing,” Tamayo said. (It wasn’t strictly a party issue, though, as the outgoing Republican governor was not in favor of eliminating bilingual ed.)

Romney was reluctant about a portion of the law that allows teachers to be sued for violating it—a provision in the California and Arizona versions, too—but supported the issue overall. He went on to win the gubernatorial election.

“We helped him a lot more than he helped us,” Tamayo said. “It certainly helped carry him.”

Romney has referenced the Massachusetts initiative, which undid a 30-year-old law, more than once in debates with other Republicans and discusses it in his book.

Ten years after the ballot measure passed, however, Massachusetts continues to struggle with teaching English-language learners. For example, an investigation last year by the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights found instruction for these students was inadequate.

Tamayo supported Romney for president in 2008—at one campaign stop during that race, Ann Romney told him that the English-immersion initiative played a critical role in getting her husband elected governor. He looks forward to a Romney presidency that would take the approach nationwide.

As the head of two private schools, Tamayo also likes Romney and the GOP’s endorsement of school choice options.

At Academy Prep, I met students playing chess Wednesday afternoon—a school requirement, along with liberal doses of arts education and required study hall for students who aren’t on the honor roll. High school and college banners that mark the paths of past graduates decorate the school auditorium and serve as inspiration, he said.

The majority of the Tampa school’s 115 students are African-American. There are a small number of students learning English—by immersion, of course.

“We’re here to broaden their horizons,” Tamayo said of his students. He’s invited both the Romney and Obama campaigns to visit.

While it’s clear why he wants Romney to visit, why Obama? “He needs to see how inner-city education is working.”

Photo: Lincoln Tamayo plays chess Wednesday with one of the 6th grade students at Academy Prep Center of Tampa. Students at the school have become chess champions in Florida and across the country. By Nirvi Shah/Education Week