Mexico’s education reform faces hurdles to conquering union

By Alexandra Alper and Lizbeth Diaz, Reuters

MEXICO CITY — The biggest shake-up in decades of Mexico’s failing school system aims to tame a powerful teachers’ union, lift woefully poor standards and help boost economic growth. The overhaul, if successful, will wrest oversight of teacher hiring and competency exams away from a powerful union, and make all promotions based on merit. It would also help address some of the scams that are rife in Mexico’s public education system. Some teachers often skip class themselves, while final year students doing social service are sent in as substitutes for teachers who take jobs within the union and continue to receive their wages. Teaching positions can be passed down through families even in the absence of qualifications, or are simply sold under the table or bartered for cars or other assets. A new law, signed by President Enrique Pena Nieto on Monday, aims to clean up the mess and is one of a wider raft of economic reforms that he is seeking to push through. “Our children deserve responsible, trained teachers,” Pena Nieto said. “The reform contains clear rules so that professional merit is the only way to become, remain and advance as a teacher.” But as with government efforts to push through key reforms in telecoms, energy and the tax system, the devil is in the details.

The majority of Mexico’s state legislatures have approved the reform, but it leaves some important issues up in the air. It does not specify who will oversee the policing of teaching standards, nor does it say how teachers will be assessed. Although lawmakers approved it two months ago and Pena Nieto signed it on Monday, the education law will not have an impact until a separate implementing law is drawn up and passed by lawmakers over the next six months.

That gives Mexico’s biggest teacher’s union, the National Union of Education Workers, and its combative leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, a window to lobby against changes that would weaken its power. Ricardo Raphael, an expert at the Center for Investigation and Economic Teaching (CIDE) institute, said the reform would be doomed without strong accompanying regulatory measures.