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Column 063008 Wall

Monday, June 30, 2008

Will Calderon and La Maestra Reform Mexican Education?

By Allan Wall

Among the ambitious reforms proposed by Mexican President Felipe Calderon is a reform of Mexican education.  Everybody agrees that the Mexican educational system must be reformed.  In Mexico, education is a constitutionally-mandated civil right, spelled out in Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution. (In contrast, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t even mention the subject.)

Nevertheless, despite good intentions, public education in Mexico is a disaster.  Not private education, which is why just about every Mexican parent with enough money sends his children to a private school.  Mexico has some very good private schools. Some have a higher educational level than U.S. public schools.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to have a good education in a Mexican public school. But it depends on that oft-ignored factor – family background, which makes a huge difference in the success or failure of a student.

I personally work in education in Mexico, where I have taught for 15 years. It’s a noble profession.  But, I have to admit, it’s also a profession which is particularly prone to quackery, charlatanism, and crackpot utopian fads that just make things worse for students while enriching those who promote them.  This is especially true when education intersects with bureaucracy, politics and organized labor. 

Regarding teachers’ unions, I highly recommend The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, by Peter Brimelow.  This book describes the deleterious influence of the major U.S. teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, on American education.  As Brimelow points out, the problem is that public education is a monopoly, and teacher unions are a monopoly on top of a monopoly.

In Mexico, Calderon’s supposed ally in Mexican education reform is Elba Esther Gordillo, aka La Maestra (the Teacher), leader of the S.N.T.E. (National Education Workers’ Union).  With a membership of over 1.4 million members, it’s the biggest union in Latin America, and probably the most powerful in the whole hemisphere.

Frankly, when I see Calderon in cahoots with La Maestra and the S.N.T.E., it leaves me pessimistic about the prospects of public education reform in Mexico. That’s because the S.N.T.E. is part of the problem.

The S.N.T.E. is not just a union of teachers; it really runs the Mexican educational system.  And what a system it is, for those on the permanent payroll. What an employee of the Mexican public schools aspires to is a plaza, which is a tenured position. Once he or she has that plaza, it is almost impossible to fire a teacher.  The plaza can be inherited by his or her son or daughter, or even sold. And Mexican public schools have plenty of employees who receive paychecks but don’t even go to work.

To be sure, there are some good teachers in the Mexican public schools, but it’s obviously such a corrupt and inefficient system that it’s not, on the whole, doing a great job educating young Mexicans.  Some students graduate elementary school without being able to read.

As for La Maestra, she’s been Secretary General of the S.N.T.E. since 1989, and “lifetime president” since 1994. She’s also been accused of assassinating a few dissident teachers, but then, her predecessor was accused of assassinating about 150.

Elba Esther’s net worth has been estimated at US$70 million, and she owns property in several countries, including a US$5 million house in San Diego, California.  Education has been very profitable for La Maestra.

Additionally, Gordillo has served in both houses of the Mexican Congress. For most of her career she was in the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party).

In the 2006 presidential election, however, La Maestra endorsed PAN (National Action Party) candidate Felipe Calderon (for which she was expelled from the PRI).  So now she’s a Calderon ally.  Indeed, given how close the election was it’s highly probable that Calderon wouldn’t have won without her.

This gives La Maestra an enormous amount of leverage with the Calderon administration.  Calderon owes her a political favor, so it’s highly unlikely she will lose any influence in the administration.

It’s also highly unlikely that any “reform” will take away power from the S.N.T.E.  Turning Mexican educational reform over to Elba Esther Gordillo is like hiring a wolf to repair the chicken coop.

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Allan Wall, a MexiData.info columnist, resides in Mexico and teaches at a university.  Allan's website is located at www.allanwall.net.