Peña Nieto’s Most Courageous Reform

Teacher union leader Elba Esther Gordillo and new Mexican education minister Emilio Chuayffet. (Photos: Mexican Presidency and Senate)

Mexico’s education reform may prove to be President
Peña Nieto’s most important, potentially defining his entire administration.


Mexico’s new President, Enrique Peña Nieto, is already hard at work shifting the conversation in his country. Outgoing President Felipe Calderon, for better or worse, could never escape the shadow cast by his war against the narco traffickers and its impact on citizen security. But while Peña Nieto has made it clear he won’t back down in the fight against drugs, he is also raising the profile of issues like economic growth and competitiveness, infrastructure, and energy reform. High on this list is the need to tackle the education deficit.

Peña Nieto is taking full advantage of his first days in office, aggressively framing the vision and goals for a new administration. Against expectations, he is working together with the opposition right off the bat – signing a pact with the leaders of all three major parties to move forward in multiple areas of reform: economic deregulation, modernization of the energy sector, and labor market reform.


But with his December 9th announcement of a far-reaching and long-overdue education reform plan, he is now going even further. This may prove to be his most important reform, potentially defining his entire administration and shaping the Mexican state for years to come. It will certainly be difficult, and he probably won’t see the results by the end of his six year term, but it could easily be his strongest legacy. It also carries with it significant political risk, given the opposition of one of the strongest powerhouses in Mexico –the National Union of Education Workers, or the SNTE (in its Spanish initials).


The pact signed by the country's top leaders a day after the President's inauguration does mean, however, that the reform measures are supported by all three major parties. The teachers unions are wary of the bill because it will, among other things, establish a separate and autonomous body to evaluate teachers. The creation of a professional system for hiring, evaluating and promoting teachers – eliminating the "discretionary criteria" currently used in a system where teaching positions are often bought or inherited – means that the SNTE will no longer be able to use those positions as a political tool.


This is coming not a moment too soon. As the popular recent documentary “De Panzazo” (“Barely Passing”) dramatizes, only 51 percent of students who begin school make it past the elementary level, seven of ten adolescents can’t read or multiply, and test scores are at the bottom of the OECD’s comparative Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Only 52 percent of 15-19 year olds are enrolled in school, compared to 75 percent in Brazil and 73 percent in Chile. The proposal will also extend learning hours in some 40,000 public schools – Mexico’s school day is already short compared to international standards, and it loses further classroom hours from repeated teacher strikes. In 2006, for instance, striking teachers all but shut down the southern state of Oaxaca for months in protest of planned reforms.


In the 21st century, globally competitive economy, such low levels of human capital attainment makes sustainable economic development impossible. And Peña Nieto’s plan hopes to change this reality. It sets ambitious goals, including raising the level of Mexican students who complete middle school to 80 percent and the number who complete high school to 40 percent.


While many countries face these challenges, in Mexico there is the additional challenge that accurate information about the number of teachers in the system does not exist. Thus, the SNTE essentially governs itself unchecked, like a government within the government. SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo, who is a feared kingmaker in Mexican politics, is particularly threatened by reforms that move control of the public education system to the federal government and away from the 1.2 million member union.


The SNTE is publicly offering support for the changes, demonstrating both its concern over its increasingly negative reputation as well as something of a decline in its ability to instill fear in political leaders. And indeed, the union isn’t the only problem – policymakers must step up their efforts to push reforms in concert with business and intellectual leaders. Countries that have successfully implemented reforms have done so through a coalition approach, by bringing together the major stakeholders. The president should follow this model – and the pact he has signed means he is off to a good start.


The reforms are still far from reality. First, they need to pass Congress, where no party, including Peña Nieto’s PRI, has an outright majority. And making it even more difficult, because the proposal restructures the education system, it requires constitutional reform, and thus it will have to be approved by 16 of Mexico's 31 states. But all of this is possible, if challenging. Peña Nieto has forcefully set the agenda and has begun to move public opinion in the right direction. Now it is up to his fellow politicians to follow his lead, for the good of Mexico.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latinvex.

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