Mexico’s new education laws: reform or political power play?

On Feb. 26, just days before radical new educational reforms were scheduled to take effect, Elba Esther Gordillo, head of Mexico’s powerful teacher’s union for almost a quarter century, was arrested and charged with embezzling 2 billion pesos (approximately $160 million) from her union during her tenure.

The question that is foremost on everyone’s mind: is this a move by President Enrique Peña Nieto to get rid himself of a leading political opponent, or is it another move to break the power of the teacher’s union nearly monopolistic control of the Mexican educational system and an effort to bring about actual reform?

Mexico is currently ranked last among the members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), according to the organization’s 2012 report. This is not the result of lack of funding. While the country spends 22 percent of its gross national product on education, with over 80 percent of that going to teachers’ salaries, fewer than half of students graduate high school.
Among OECD countries, only Brazil and Chile have a lower graduation rate.  In testing results for math, science and critical reading skills, only 1 percent of Mexican students post “advanced” results, compared to 18 percent of Canadian students and 10 percent of U.S. students.

So what are the reforms that Sra. Gordillo and her union members oppose?  First, the teachers whose salaries are paid for by the federal government would be hired by the government; no longer would teachers be chosen by the union. The long-standing and well-documented practice of union leadership at the national and local level, choosing who receives appointments based on the payment of bribes and the inheritance of positions from parent to child, would be abolished.  Second, promotion and pay raises would be based upon merit and not whom you know or how loyal you are to the union.  Third, the approximately 1 million Mexican teachers would be subject to an evaluation   system that is current being developed.  Finally, teachers would have to provide proof of qualification to be teachers by taking exams. Under the current system, many teachers lack even a high-school education.

None of these reforms are inconsistent with what most governments around the world do in relationship to their educational systems. Most are basic functions of governments at various levels around the world.

In the past, Sra. Godillo and her union have been partnered with President Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), until the union moved its support to Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) following Calderon’s election in 2006.  Many have viewed her arrest and the passage of these reform laws as Peña Nieto’s attempt at revenge against the union. The evidence to date shows that it is a calculated move by the current president to do more than one thing. Peña Nieto realized the changes in the law as a way to wrest control of the educational system from the union and put it in the government’s hands — and also get his revenge on Sra. Godillo and her union for not supporting him.

The hope of many parents and educational reform groups in Mexico, such as Mexicanos Primero (“Mexicans First”) and the Citizen Coalition for Education, is that President Peña Nieto actually makes good on reforms and creates a quality education system in Mexico that improves the lives of children and puts Mexico on a path for development, bringing the nation into the 21st century.


By guest contributor Jeffery Cassity
Jeffery Cassity is a socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative Anglo male who is involved in his local Latino community. As the widower of a 1st-generation Mexican-American woman, he’s an active (some would say hyperactive) member of the his Council of the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC).

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