Public education, as important as it may be, is not usually considered one of the top priorities of politicians or governments since they usually have more urgent issues to deal with in the adult world. Indeed, there is a traditional perception in our society that what goes on in the classroom is as much a local and state issue as it is the federal government’s and that the success of public education depends largely on the dedication of individual educators and teachers. But as the world economic situation continues to worsen, it is becoming more and more necessary and convenient for politicians and national governments to recognize the serious problems of long standing that plague the traditional model of public education. Education reform initiatives like those proposed by Presidents Bush, (“No Child Left Behind”), and Obama,( “Race to the Top”) and “Charter Schools” are all examples of purported attempts to address this problem in the United States. Now this education reform movement has moved south to Mexico where it has ignited a firestorm of protest among public school teachers led by the dissident teachers’ union, the National Congress of Education Workers (CNTE), which has brought thousands of teachers into the streets protesting Educational Reform Laws (ERL) which have been proposed by Mexico’s newly elected president, Enrique Peña Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Though these laws were approved by Mexico’s national legislature last summer, it is evident that by proposing to reform education in Mexico on the model of the U.S., Peña Nieto has opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box.
PRESIDENT PEÑA NIETO’S EDUCATION REFORM LAW
Peña Nieto has been able to pass the ERL thanks to a package of reforms called the “Pact for Mexico”, which he and his party signed before he took office in December of 2012 with the other two major parties of the country, the National Action Party, (PAN) and the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). The ambitious package of reforms includes, besides the fiercely contested ERL, a labor reform law, which was passed earlier this year over the vehement protests of labor unions; a tax reform law, the details of which are now being discussed in the congress; and, the most controversial reform of them all, the privatization of the state-owned PEMEX oil company which is now being negotiated by the major political parties and will soon be voted upon in the midst of widespread popular resistance.
The Mexican version of the reform law is actually part of a much larger educational reform movement taking place in the U.S., Chile, Brazil and other countries and is being promoted by politicians, private enterprise, philanthropic foundations and international organizations. In Mexico the ERL is being promoted by Mexico Primero, an organization representing the private sector, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD), the World Bank and, of course, a compliant corporate media. The ostensible goal of the reform movement is to make public education, schools and teachers more efficient, competitive, cost-effective, accountable and productive by managing them according to the principles of private enterprise. This amounts to the privatization of one of the most important of public services—education—and a frontal attack on teachers’ unions and labor rights.
The present ERL has been carefully planned and has been in the works at least since 2008 when the groundwork was laid for it during the administration of Felipe Calderon of the PAN. After Peña Nieto took office, the next step in the reform movement was to enlist support in the required number of states for the presentation of a general reform law. Then last February, just hours before submitting the reform legislation to the congress, Peña Nieto arrested the corrupt leader of the largest teachers’ union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who had split with the PRI in the last elections and could not be counted on to support the reform initiative. The SNTE, the National Union of Educational Workers, has 1.5 million members, is the largest labor union in Latin America and is generally considered undemocratic. Gordillo is now in prison awaiting trial and her replacement, appointed by the federal government, Juan Diaz de la Torre, has promised to back the reforms. Last August the “secondary laws”, which stipulated the particular conditions of the ERL, were presented to the legislature for approval, and have subsequently been passed. The last and most controversial of these laws, the Professional Teacher’s Service Law, was passed hugger mugger on the very eve of Peña Nieto’s State of the Union Address on September 2.
The ERL made changes to Articles 3 and 73 of the Mexican Constitution, which guaranteed all Mexican citizens the right to a secular education and specified how public education was to be administered. The ERL consists of 1) the general education law which changes education from a right into a “service” and stipulates that teachers will be evaluated by a standardized test drawn up by the OECD, 2) a law establishing the National Evaluation Institute, which creates a mechanism for teacher evaluation, and 3) the Professional Teachers’ Service Law, the most controversial of the education reforms, which requires teachers to pass a standardized test within a period of two years. If after three attempts the teacher fails to pass the test, she is summarily dismissed without the right to a hearing, removed from her post or offered early retirement, according to her category and seniority. This, the teachers argue, violates the teachers’ constitutional right to job security and stability.
CNTE TEACHERS CALL FOR A PEACEFUL“INSURRECTION”
Public repudiation of the ERL has been led by the CNTE, the dissident teacher’s union which is predominant in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in the country. The union is highly politicized and has a 30 year history of militant struggle. In response to the ERL, the union mobilized its forces, which include about 74,000, or about 5%, of the country’s teachers, just as it did during a similar political dispute with the governor of Oaxaca in 2006. This past summer, they brought their protest to Mexico City. They descended upon the capital in buses by the thousands and over a period of weeks, conducted marches and demonstrations which often paralyzed traffic in parts of the city and sometimes led to violent confrontations with government riot police. They also occupied the Zócalo, the central square of the capital, in plastic tent cities for several weeks before being forcibly removed by riot police on September 13. They have since removed their encampment to the Revolution Monument near the city center and have continued to hold rallies, marches and demonstrations throughout the city. The last demonstration in which they participated took place this past Wednesday, October 2, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the infamous government massacre of students at Tlatelolco just days before the 1968 Olympic Games. There were, during these demonstrations, yet more outbreaks of violence and confrontations with police in incidents which, it is speculated, were triggered by provocateurs infiltrated into the teachers’ ranks.
During this mobilization
and occupation of the capital, the CNTE has been debating whether to end their
strike and return to their home state or stay in the capital, all the while calling
for a peaceful teacher’s “insurrection” nationwide. Some teachers and workers
are calling for a general strike. The CNTE’s call to action has found a
sympathetic response in large sections of the country, particularly in the
poorer states, among teachers, parents, other members of the community and labor
unions. Meanwhile, the teachers’ movement has been viciously and systematically
ostracized by the private sector, the middle class and the corporate media.
Rally commemorating Tlatelolco massacre of Oct. 2, 1968 in which tousands of teachers marched attracted a number provocateurs calling themselves "anarchists".Photo: Cuartoscuro
THE TEACHERS’ GRIEVANCES
The teachers’ grievances are roughly as follows. Teacher’s view the standardized teacher evaluation test mandated by the ERL as “punitive” because the system does not provide the means whereby the teacher can update her skills or remediate her shortcomings at government expense. The new law will also weaken the power of the teachers’ union and reduce teachers' labor rights by isolating the teachers and subjugating them to the unilateral and potentially arbitrary decisions of a centralized bureaucracy. It will also undermine the teachers’ national training institutions by allowing any and all professionals to apply for a position as a teacher. The net effect of this latter provision will be that older teachers with seniority will be replaced by a younger cadre of teachers who will not have the same training, salary or labor benefits and will be awarded only 6 month contracts. In fact, the minister of education, Emilio Chuayffet, has announced that he expects that 60% of the nation’s present teaching corps of 1.5 million, or 900,000 teachers, will be replaced within the next twelve years, which amounts to the dismissal of some 72,000 teachers a year.
Thus the teachers see the new education laws not as a serious effort at education reform but as an overt attack upon their unions, their labor rights and their very livelihoods. As one observer has pointed out, any serious effort at education reform would pose a myriad of unanswerable questions about the curriculum and how it is to be taught. The law, rather, is an attack on the teachers’ union and their labor rights in the guise of education reform which seeks to scapegoat the teachers by making them appear to be entirely responsible for a situation which, particularly in the poorer areas of the country, is plagued by conditions beyond their control. Furthermore, by evaluating only the teachers, the law does not recognize the responsibility that the Department of Education and the government itself has and has had in the creation of the problems which public education now confronts. In addition, since most of the teachers are from Oaxaca, which has a history of conflict with the government, the movement is also, at least partly, political.
Meanwhile, the teachers of the CNTE have formulated and submitted their own set of reforms to the government for consideration in which 1) they call for a guarantee of the minimum conditions for education such as school facilities and materials for teachers and students which will allow learning to take place, 2) they seek to allow student-teacher input into school administration, the planning of curriculum and the evaluation system itself, all of which would take into account the particular conditions of the school environment and the community and 3) ask for a training program which would allow teachers to upgrade their knowledge and skills at government, rather than personal, expense. The government’s proposed ERL, the CNTE maintains, makes the teachers alone accountable for the success or failure of education and does not allow for a global evaluation of the education system itself.
NEOLIBERALISM AND EDUCATION
Responsibility for the fury of dissent that the government’s ERL has unleashed rests in no small part on the government itself and its refusal to consult or negotiate with those very people who are most closely involved with education: teachers, parents and students. The way the law is being formulated and implemented, like the content of the law itself, is authoritarian and unilateral. But more importantly, the crisis in education that the law is intended to remedy is not the sole responsibility of the teachers but is ultimately one of the consequences of the advanced state of the general decomposition of modern society under free-market capitalism. The crisis of education we now face is only a reflection of the failings of society precipitated by capitalism-- and implementing radical Neoliberal policies which turn public services such as education over to the dictates of private enterprise is expecting that the system responsible for creating the crisis should also be mandated to solve it. But the real motives of the government’s education reform laws are not to reform public education or address the root causes of its failures but to dismantle and destroy it completely by privatizing it and by weakening or even destroying the teachers’ labor unions in the process. In this respect we see a major political offensive against trade unionism very similar to the education reform movement in the U.S.. Public education, therefore, is quickly becoming a major bat tleground in the bitter class war that is emerging in Mexico as the present economic crisis continues to worsen.
October 5, 2013
Following the rally commemorating the Tlatelolco massacre the CNTE teachers voted to lift their occupation of the Revolution Monument and return to Oxaca.