Mexicans don't agree on much. But nearly everyone agrees that without reforming education – which delivers poor results despite generous public funding – talk of a Mexican renaissance under President Enrique Peña Nieto isn't likely to materialize.
Which is why one group's opposition to overhauling education has blown up into a crucial test of the president's reform agenda.
Last Friday, the government announced it would indefinitely suspend nationally administered evaluations, a cornerstone of its education reform that has been written into the constitution.
Education was the first area covered by a series of sweeping reforms presented by Peña Nieto and passed by a multi-party coalition in Congress. It was followed by other changes in long-protected sectors like energy and telecommunications, all designed to pave the way for a more competitive nation.
But a dissident branch of a national teachers' union, and longtime opponent of education reforms, has been urging voters to boycott June 7 midterm elections. And that appears to have stayed the president's hand. Yet his willingness to surrender a crucial reform measure has many questioning his motivations and ability to lead the nation.
This is “a sign of [government] stagnation,” says Alejandro Schtulmann, president of Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis, a consultancy in Mexico City. “Education is at the core of Mexico’s future. We have so much corruption and so much crime because we don’t have good education in Mexico.”
Facing union resistance
When Peña Nieto introduced the education reform in 2012, he called it “the foundation for transforming Mexico.” In addition to teacher evaluations, the reform package includes the creation of a merit-based pay and promotion system, tests for new teachers entering the field, and more federal oversight.
“The education reform was more than [Peña Nieto’s] first initiative and his first achievement: It was the key to his credibility. A government that dared touch a power like the teachers’ union and announce criteria like merit in the education process deserved respect,” wrote political commentator Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez in Mexico’s daily Reforma. “The government of Peña Nieto took this position in realigning the state. Hence the size of this loss.”
Mexico spends one of the highest percentages of its budget on education among industrialized countries, but test results reflect poorly on its investment. Less than 40 percent of adults (ages 25-64) have graduated from high school, almost half the average among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development countries. And Mexico regularly ranks in the bottom third in reading comprehension, math, and science in the Program for International Student Assessment, an international gauge for student performance.
Economists say Mexico's lackluster education system holds back economic output and contributes to inequality.
In a statement, the education ministry said the suspension of teacher evaluations was due to “new elements” that need to be taken into consideration. But many point to a disruptive branch of Mexico’s national teacher’s union – particularly strong in southern, poorer states – called The National Coordinator of Educational Workers (CNTE).
“Due to political motivations or out of fear, the government is putting education at risk,” says David Calderon, the general director of Mexicanos Primero, a leading education advocacy group. The teacher evaluations were not created as tools of punishment for teachers, but an opportunity for reflection and improvement, he says.
Amid the suspension of teacher evaluations, which were to roll out in coming months, CNTE members launched a strike on Monday that is expected to last through Sunday’s election. Schools shut down in many parts of Guerrero, Michoacán, Chiapas, and Oaxaca, barring millions of students from the classroom. Education and electoral offices were targeted with violence and vandalism in protests across southern Mexico, and hundreds of union members marched in Mexico City calling for a complete elimination of the education reform.
“We have said, and we repeat, that the evaluations aren’t the main objective, but to repeal a reform that’s more about labor than education,” a CNTE representative said over the weekend.
Any reform can expect opposition, “but this has turned into a lose-lose situation,” says Calderon. “The government loses credibility” and Mexicans lose the constitutional guarantee of quality education.
Kids flood out of the black metal doors of a public elementary school here on a recent afternoon, many teetering beneath the sheer size of their brightly colored backpacks. Maria del Carmen Castillo stands beneath a leafy tree on the crowded sidewalk, waiting for her grandson.
“It’s important to evaluate teachers. We need to know if they really know what they’re teaching,” Ms. Castillo says. “It worries me that we haven’t seen much change in education since my kids were in school.”
Mexico's first nationwide school census last year found that more than 39,000 "ghost" teachers – who don't show up to teach – were on the payroll. Another roughly 30,000 individuals are paid teaching salaries for completing union work or other non-classroom activities, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.
Concerned citizens, academics, and civil society helped push education reforms from the get-go, says Calderon. He's hopeful that the overhaul can get back on track, but says it will be "very complicated," including legal steps against what he calls the federal government's "anti constitutional move."
Families may become increasingly important in the push for change, says Schtulmann. If the federal and state governments had visible citizen support "they would probably act differently,” he says. "But the government, in a way, feels it's alone in this."