US-Style School Reform Goes South | The Nation


US-Style School Reform Goes South

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Members of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) raise their fists during a protest march to commemorate National Teachers Day in Mexico City May 15, 2012. Thousands of teachers from the state of Oaxaca and Mexico City took part to protest against the mandatory evaluation tests for teachers and to demand the removal of their union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, according to local media. Reuters/Edgard Garrido

Just weeks after taking office, Mexico’s new president, Enrique Peña Nieto, ordered the arrest of the country’s most powerful union leader, Elba Esther Gordillo. The move garnered international headlines and was widely cast as a sign that the government was serious about cracking down on corruption. But virtually no one in Mexico believes that was the real reason for her arrest.

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The timing alone suggests a different interpretation. Gordillo, president of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), was charged with embezzlement and removed from office in late February—shortly after the Mexican Congress gave its final approval to an education reform program that is despised by most of the country’s teachers.

Gordillo was a longtime ally of the famously corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the party not only of Peña Nieto but of the disgraced former president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who imposed her as the union’s president in 1989, after forcing her predecessor to resign. Although Gordillo was forced out of the party several years ago in a power struggle, she remained one of the most powerful politicians in Mexico.

An anti-democratic union leader, Gordillo may well prove to be guilty of the charges leveled against her. But what placed her in the cross-hairs of Mexico’s corporate elite was more likely her inability to keep teachers under control as the country moves forward with its latest neoliberal reform—this time of its schools. 

One leader of the progressive opposition within the SNTE, Juan Ortega Madrigal, warned that Peña Nieto “is totally wrong if he believes that he can silence the voices of 500,000 teachers by decree,” adding that they would not “abandon the defense of public education.” The teachers backed up that sentiment with a two-day national strike. Rubén Núñez Ginez, the head of Oaxaca’s teachers union, said they would not permit a law to take effect that attacks public education and the rights of teachers.

Since the fall, teachers have been demonstrating and striking against the PRI’s proposal, which would tie their jobs to standardized tests and remove the voice of the union in hiring. But the corporate offensive to gain control of the country’s schools was launched long before Peña Nieto took office.

Just months after Waiting for Superman hit US movie screens in 2010, ¡De Panzazo! premiered in Mexico City. Both are movies produced by neoliberal education reformers who hold teachers and unions responsible for a failed education system. And their near-simultaneous release and ideological resemblance was no coincidence: in Mexico City, ¡De Panzazo! was screened not in a movie theater, but in the twenty-fourth-floor offices of the World Bank. “One can see similarities to the U.S. documentary, Waiting for Superman,” an article on the bank’s website noted, especially “in its suggestion that teachers’ unions bear a significant responsibility [for the failings of public schools.]”

Luis Hernández Navarro, opinion editor of the Mexico City daily La Jornada, saw the similarities too. “Both have two central elements in common,” he wrote. “They criticize public education in their countries, and they’re financed and backed by important people in the business world.”

A network of large corporations and banks extends throughout Latin America, financed and guided in part from the United States, pushing the same formula: standardized tests, linking teachers’ jobs and pay to test results, and bending the curriculum to employers’ needs while eliminating social criticism. The medicine doesn’t go down easily, however. In both countries, grassroots opposition—from parents and teachers—has been rising. In Seattle, teachers at Garfield High have refused to give the tests. In Michoacan, in central Mexico, sixteen teachers went to jail because they also refused.

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Today, the most powerful organized resistance comes from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Here, teachers have proposed education reform that gives more voice to teachers, students and parents, allows them to work creatively together, and enhances critical thinking. Because of political changes in Oaxaca, they have the power not just to propose ideas like these but also to implement them.

Explains Oaxacan teacher Pedro Javier Torres, “We have enough schools, although not all completely adequate. The problem is the quality of the education—the same problem as in the United States. How do we offer a student a quality school? What kind of teacher do we want, and who will determine this?”

Teachers have an answer to this question, but so does Mexico’s corporate elite. “In Search of Business Sustainability,” a report by the Intelligence Unit of the British magazine The Economist, documents growing corporate involvement in Mexican education. Coca-Cola and Ford have built model schools. The Televisa Foundation organizes seminars for teachers and administrators. Industrialists for Basic Education (which includes the food giant Bimbo) pushes changes in curriculum and teaching standards. 

By far the most influential corporate education reform lobby is Mexicanos Primero, supported by the country’s wealthiest corporations and individuals, like Carlos Hank and Carlos Slim. Hernández Navarro calls it “a shadowy organization that promotes the interests of the corporate right wing in education.” 

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