Editor's Note: Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Mexico's powerful teachers' union, was arrested Tuesday for alleged embezzlement. The move comes as Mexico's school system is mired in a national debate that has teachers up in arms over how standardized tests should be used to evaluate their performance.
Recently approved by the Mexican Congress and ratified by a majority of state legislatures, the country’s new education law is touted as a centerpiece of the Pact for Mexico agreed to by the nation’s major political parties.
Currently, an intense media campaign is underway to promote a law that reforms articles 3 and 73 of the Mexican Constitution. In deference to educators’ concerns, the reform “recognizes, respects and promotes the rights of all teachers,” claimed a Pact for Mexico ad published in an Acapulco newspaper.
But Mexico’s teachers aren’t buying the sales pitch. The law, contended Julian Bello, representative for Section 14 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) in Acapulco, was passed by “legislators who don’t know anything about education.”
This month, Bello and tens of thousands of teachers in Acapulco, Zihuatanejo and other cities in the southern state of Guerrero have joined their colleagues across the Mexican Republic in repeated street protests and work stoppages against the reform.
While supporters of the law maintain that it will bring professionalism, order and higher standards to a teacher placement system notorious for graft and nepotism, educators counter that it will tie their job rights to standardized testing while failing to offer new pedagogical approaches to an educational system widely considered as riddled with gaping deficits.
Sailing through Congress prior to last year’s Christmas holiday break, the reform passed without the input of teachers, Patricia Meza Rendon, member of the executive committee of the Guerrero State Coordinator of Education Workers (CETEG), told FNS. “(Lawmakers) aren’t taking into account the teachers, researchers or parents who are in involved in education,” Meza charged.
In interviews with FNS, representatives of both the SNTE and the CETEG, which is affiliated with the National Education Workers Coordinator (CNTE) and functions as a large dissident group within the official SNTE, also asserted that the reform could entrench the fees Mexican parents pay to enroll and keep their children in public schools, even though free primary education is guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution, and further pry open the doors to privatization by giving school principals more power over fundraising and budgeting.
“You want an English teacher, Coca Cola might be the sponsor,” said SNTE activist Jose Nava.
In Guerrero, public insecurity is another issue that is stoking teacher discontent. In 2011, educators shut down dozens of Acapulco schools for prolonged periods of time because of kidnappings, extortions and robberies committed against members of their profession.
Although state and federal authorities increased patrols around schools and contracted private security guards, insecurity continues being a problem, especially in the rural area of Acapulco and other parts of the state, according to Meza.
“They haven’t gotten to the root of the problem,” she argued.
This past week alone, two Acapulco elementary schools were temporarily shut down because of a reported kidnapping attempt directed against a teacher, while in Tepetixla, a rural community in a municipality neighboring Acapulco, elementary school students watched as their teacher was shot in the head.
Meza criticized the reform legislation for having little to do with Mexican realities and more to do with following the dictates of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The reform, she said, fits into a broader scheme of privatization and austerity imposed in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
For once, both the SNTE and CETEG are waging a campaign against a common target, though key differences remain between the two organizations.
Last summer, during the presidential election campaign, the SNTE, which is led by political broker Elba Esther “La Maestra” Gordillo, bombarded the airwaves with an ad that portrayed SNTE teachers as responsible social actors who stay in the classroom while depicting CNTE members as problematic protesters who leave children without mentors.
Less than a year later, however, Gordillo’s partisans are out on the streets just like the CETEG and their allies.
On February 18, the SNTE staged an anti-education law march of upwards of 30,000 teachers who snarled traffic for hours on the Costera tourist strip in Acapulco. A local radio station broadcast live reports of the march, focusing on the possible inconveniences to motorists.
Days earlier, the CETEG organized a similar but smaller protest on the Costera. In both instances state and municipal riot squads turned out in force, though no incidents ensued.
Although the teachers have received the support of some student and parent groups, they face an uphill struggle in the battle for public opinion. Fairly or unfairly, many people bash teachers as incompetent, lazy or privileged.
“Generalized Repudiation” headlined El Sol de Acapulco about the February 18 protest.
The columnists have increasingly weighed in on the education controversy, too. Writing in La Jornada’s Guerrero edition, Xavier Carreto A. backed the reform as “an opportune moment” that should be seized, citing the new national teacher evaluation system, the empowerment of individual schools and the planned distribution of lap-tops to fifth and sixth grade students.
Carreto took educators to task for not previously addressing or even encouraging privatization trends, such as the eagerness of many parents to send their children to private schools because of regular class suspensions and the reputed poor preparation of educators.
“It’s urgent to improve education for the sake of growth, competitiveness and salaries that will translate into well-being for the suffering people of Guerrero,” Carreto wrote.
Humberto Santos Bautista, former director of the historic Ayotzinapa rural teachers’ college, questioned the protest motivations of the SNTE and criticized the CETEG’s slowness in presenting a “viable project” for a society in dire need of education reform.
“This is perhaps the moment for the people of Guerrero to begin seriously debating the education project that is needed-a project with ideas and its own thinking for transforming the public school down to its core,” Santos wrote in the Guerrero daily El Sur.
Yet other than some newspapers, which few people in a state with high illiteracy rates read, there has been only spotty public discussion about the particulars of the national education reform.
Mostly, electronic media focus on the short-term disruptions of the protests and work stoppages as opposed to the long-term impacts, positive or negative, of the education reform.
Meantime, the SNTE and the CETEG plan more actions against the reform law, with differing tactics and strategies. The SNTE came out this week against work stoppages, but the CETEG announced its members would commence indefinite strikes in Guerrero schools on Monday.
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