MEXICO CITY — The streets of Mexico City seem strangely quiet since the nation’s teachers decided October 14 to return to their schools. The tents set up in the downtown blocks are mostly folded up and gone and traffic flows are as can be expected in a city of nearly 10 million.
But it would be a big mistake to consider the chapter closed. Thousands of teachers throughout the country continue to organize, and they are determined to block the changes to the nation’s education laws that catalyzed their movement.
After nearly 40 days of a walk-out accompanied by daily marches and demonstrations in the capital city, members of the democratic rank-and-file movement made the decision to return to their local communities. Leaders describe the step as merely a tactical retreat in a long battle.
Mexican teachers are fighting for their jobs and for public education. The movement, founded over three decades ago as the National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE, by its Spanish initials), mobilized to reject changes in the constitution that pin their jobs and salary levels to the results of a standardized test and establish “operating autonomy” for schools to do their own fundraising, among other provisions. The teachers say this will destroy diversity, erode job security and lead to privatization of schools.
The CNTE is the democratic current within the mammoth National Education Workers Union (SNTE), Mexico’s most powerful union and the largest labor organization in the Americas. The SNTE is renowned for corruption and politicking. The democratic teachers have sought to challenge the iron rule of pro-government union bosses through grassroots labor organization. The CNTE has thousands of members and has won locals, or “sections,” throughout the country.
The most combative, Section 22 of the southern indigenous state of Oaxaca, has spearheaded the recent round of demonstrations against the education bill and enabling laws. The education package, proposed by President Enrique Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) soon after taking office and already approved by Congress, affects two Articles of the Constitution. The change to Article 3 makes a Bush-like “No Child Left Behind” test the criteria for teachers’ job security and salary levels and establishes an evaluation process. Article 73 gives schools the capacity to do private sector fundraising to finance basic education.
The changes, characteristic of neoliberal education reforms across the globe, erode teachers’ status as professionals with valuable skills and traditional labor rights and protections. They are now categorized as administrative employees of the Secretary of Education and can easily be dismissed from their posts.
Everyone agrees the system has to be reformed. Primary and secondary education is obligatory, yet four out of every 10 adult Mexicans have not finished high school. More than five million Mexicans, mostly women, are illiterate. But Peña Nieto’s market-oriented changes don’t touch on the obvious gaps in the system.
“The federal government decides, administers and applies policies and budgets and in the end it takes stock and blames its own shortcomings on the teachers,” says Isaias Jaime Ignacio, a teacher in the indigenous Mixtec region of Oaxaca. “We try hard to make do with the little they give us — if there’s no chalk in a school, we buy it out of our own wages, same with blackboards or when a student doesn’t have the money for a birth certificate.”
Funds for education tend to be directed to the wealthiest parts of the country. This deepens and perpetuates overall inequality and leaves thousands of schools without the minimum necessary for teaching. In 40 percent of the schools in the country teachers have to teach 1st-3rd or 4th-6th graders together in a single classroom. These are also the schools with the worst facilities — dirt floors, tin or cardboard roofs, where children come to with empty stomachs. If changes in education laws fail to provide the basic necessities for learning, clearly no test in the world can improve the quality of the education.
Mexican teachers insist you can’t draw an artificial or administrative line between the school and the community when it comes to evaluating the learning environment. Sarvia Analí Valverde teaches pre-school in a small community in the indigenous Mixtec region of Oaxaca. In her village, Guerrero Santa Cruz, children have to walk more than two kilometers to go to kindergarten. Many of their parents have been forced to migrate. The children get to school without any breakfast in their stomachs or with a knapsack with a hard tortilla spread with bean paste or a sprinkle of salt.
The new education laws don’t address these problems, nor do they acknowledge the challenges posed by the broad range of cultures and peoples that reside in Mexico, where there are more than 50 languages spoken.
“We want to be evaluated, but according to the social and economic context we work in, according to our reality, not standardized procedures,” Valverde says. She is one of the thousands of women teachers who make up the majority of the teaching force and the movement. She adds that with the way the evaluation is set up, it will be used “not to improve education, but to punish and fire teachers.” In fact, Secretary of Education Emilio Chuayfett boasts that 60 percent of the workforce will be replaced over the next 12 years.
Peña Nieto’s education program opens the door for control by unaccountable elites — specifically, leaders in the private sector who designed the measures through an organization call “Mexicans First,” media conglomerates that support the reforms and use the airways to bash the teachers’ movement, and representatives of international capitalism such as the World Bank and the Organization of Economically Developed Countries (OECD).
The latter played a major role in designing and pressuring for the changes. Many of the measures copy OECD recommendations for evaluation and orienting education to labor market needs.
Education researcher Hugo Aboites sees it as part of “a clear international confrontation” between “a project that promotes subordination of children and youth to an authoritarian, business-oriented model of society, where people are considered part of capital … whose main role is to generate wealth for others in the most competitive way possible” and “a project for integral, liberating and collective education, to make children and youth committed and informed actors capable of working for the transformation of society.”
In this vein, the teachers’ opposition proposes alternatives that emphasize maintaining their labor rights, holistic evaluation, full funding for public education and offering training and resources to improve teaching.
Mexico’s constitution enshrines social and cultural rights that have been gradually chipped away at since its birth following the Revolution of 1910. During the past three decades of neoliberal reforms, those rights have been under attack from a succession of presidents, noteworthy among them Peña Nieto’s political godfather, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the man who brought Mexico into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994.
The right to free, secular education in Mexico is one of the core revolutionary principles that strike a nerve in the national consciousness, so past administrations have been unable to make sweeping changes without major opposition. After reaching a governing pact among the three major parties, the Peña Nieto administration thinks it has the political clout to pull off its desired overhaul of the education system. It would be the first major step in carrying out an agenda that includes fundamental changes in fiscal and energy policies.
A large grassroots movement against proposed privatization of oil is already brewing. By granting concessions to transnational oil companies for exploration and exploitation of its oil, Mexico loses a main source of income. Most Mexicans view the 1938 nationalization of the oil industry with pride. And while the state-owned company PEMEX is a mess due to government mismanagement, it constitutes a national common good and provides a major part of the national budget.
As the teachers’ movement returns to its local bases to organize — with walk-outs in Michoacan, Veracruz and other states — it is also entering a phase of consolidation and alliance-building, in which it joins a rising movement that unites the fight against education reforms and opposition to oil privatization.
With their power base in the streets and in the classroom, teachers are major players as Mexico mobilizes in defense of its rights and resources.
Laura Carlsen is Director of the Mexico City-based Americas Program at the Center for International Policy.
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