As Elba Esther Gordillo, the 68-year-old leader of the largest teachers’ union in Mexico, stepped out of her private jet in Mexico City, she was apprehended by federal police and arrested on charges of embezzlement and corruption. It was Feb. 26, one day after President Enrique Peña Nieto signed his extensive education reforms into law, stripping the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) of many of its powers. A highly controversial figure, Gordillo had been the president of the SNTE for 23 years, recently winning re-election in an uncontested race.
President Peña Nieto has stated that both of these moves were meant to combat the excessive authority and corruption found in the teachers’ union—especially in the practice of hiring and evaluating teachers—in order to better Mexico’s struggling educational system. Yet these reforms have come about in a highly politicized context, with the president and his party trying to reassert power in a traditionally union-dominated sector. However, if Peña Nieto truly commits himself to reforming the infrastructure of the education system, even if his goal is simply to reestablish the strength of his government, these actions could be a step in the right direction for Mexican education.
The State of Education
There is little denying that Mexico’s educational system is in need of reform. In the 2009 PISA, a reading, math, and science exam administered to 15-year-olds all over the world by the OECD, Mexico placed 48th out of 65 countries, significantly below average. Although Mexico has made strides in improving enrollment rates and raising the skills of the median worker, repetition rates still remain high, signaling a failure to adequately prepare these students in moving along the academic track.
These lackluster figures are concerning considering that approximately 25 percent of the public budget is spent on education, much higher than any other country in the OECD. As Dr. Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, explained to the HPR, “This is not a question of funding or resources. Funding has increased dramatically over the last 12 years and yet standards have dropped,” due to improper distribution of resources. While the money should be spent on classrooms, technology, and teacher training, almost 97 percent of government spending goes towards teachers and administrators’ salaries, which are controlled by the SNTE.
In Mexico, any teacher who wishes to teach in a public school must be a member of the SNTE, which then assigns the teacher to a school with the purpose of evenly distributing quality teachers throughout the country. But Harvard professor Jorge I. Dominguez, an expert on Latin America politics, clarified that some teachers were hired essentially “through union connections,” which also allowed them to teach in the schools of their choice without any regard for their qualifications. And after six months of service, teachers earn lifetime tenure, which vastly undermines any remaining incentives to produce results. Yet most of these practices were actually established by the PRI, President Peña Nieto’s party, in order to reward party loyalists. The SNTE itself was a PRI creation and until recently maintained incredibly close ties with the party, providing political support in exchange for strong control over the teaching sector.
Despite this history, Peña Nieto has stated that he wishes to demonstrate that the PRI of today is vastly different from the PRI that ruled Mexico for an uninterrupted 71 years. But given the SNTE’s increasing independence from the party, Peña Nieto’s “reforms” are actually motivated by a desire to strengthen the power of the state. Dr. Eduardo Andere, an expert on education policy, spoke to the HPR on this subject: “This is a clear sign” that the party wants “control over education policy and does not like the current distribution of power in education,” he said.
First and foremost, the reforms signed into law will strengthen the national evaluation agency, the INEE, and require that education authorities follow the INEE’s recommendations. The reformed agency will create and enforce higher standards that will focus on using professional merit and non-discretional criteria in the hiring and evaluation of teachers—the very areas that have long been under the SNTE’s jurisdiction. Dr. Wood explains, that the unions “need to be addressed fully, and the education reform that was passed is a definite step in the right direction.” Though not a silver bullet, the reforms focus on introducing accountability in the measurement of new teachers.
A Complicated History
Mexico has a mixed history of implementing reform and fighting corruption. Although it has been successful in creating effective social policy in the realm of education—a conditional cash transfer program created in the 1990s called Oportunidades dramatically increased enrollment by paying mothers for their child’s school attendance—tackling corruption and inefficiency has also been the government’s method for silencing opponents. In 1989, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered the arrest of the leader of the powerful oil workers’ union, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, on charges of corruption and illegal possession of weapons. Salinas painted the move as a measure to combat corruption in the union, but the arrest seemed more like a political show of force by the president. In 2006, Gordillo had a disagreement with the PRI presidential candidate at the time, Roberto Madrazo, which eventually led to her expulsion from the PRI. Following this incident, Gordillo created her own political party to siphon teachers’ votes away from the PRI, a move that angered PRI party members. After negotiations to renew the alliance between the SNTE and PRI broke down in 2012, the teachers’ union fell completely out of their favor, leaving it with few allies.
Peña Nieto’s arrest of Gordillo is meant to imply that the government will no longer turn a blind eye to corruption and ineptitude. “[Gordillo] had really been an obstacle to improvements in education in Mexico,” Dominguez remarked. Though Gordillo held the support of the union, many in the country were wary of her excessive spending and were unhappy with the inadequate teaching and educational system. All three major parties in Mexico supported the reforms that would strengthen the government over the union, a significant symbol of unity for better political cooperation and against the SNTE. Thus, Gordillo’s arrest elicited the ire of few and instead boosted the popularity of the government.
An Uncertain Future
It must be noted that Gordillo herself was appointed by the PRI to head the SNTE in the late 1980s, raising concerns over whether the PRI will again play a hand in picking the next leader of the SNTE. Dominguez finds it possible that “there will be some political negotiation over who heads the teachers’ union.” If the PRI involves itself in the selection of the next leader to promote someone sympathetic to their interests, then it is difficult to determine whether the SNTE will become more transparent or instead return to its original function of serving as an extension of the PRI. As Dr. Andere warned against the possibility of exchanging “one undemocratic leaders for another,” which does nothing to shift the distribution of power. True education reform implies changing the practices of the past in order to provide the system with transparency and credibility.
Though the political motivations surrounding these changes in Mexico’s education system are concerning, questionable motivations do not imply inadequate reforms. The end result of a better education system could be a positive byproduct of the antagonism between Gordillo and the SNTE, and Peña Nieto and the PRI. But the PRI should avoid recreating the past relationship it had with the SNTE in order to implement lasting change. Peña Nieto has repeatedly stated that he wishes to further economic growth in Mexico, and improving the education system is a key factor in making Mexico more competitive. But resorting to tactics of the past in order to enact change may prove problematic, as it can potentially discredit the claims of a new, democratic PRI. Mexico has a varying history in committing itself to reforms, often abandoning them once they no longer provide political capital. But there is no repudiating that these education reforms are necessary for the inefficient system in place today. If Peña Nieto truly wishes to signal the return of a strong, centralized PRI government, then it could be in his best interest to sincerely enforce these reforms and commit himself to rooting out the deeply entrenched problems of education system’s infrastructure and its relationship with the teachers’ union in order to create a more efficient education sector.