Mexico Education: What’s Next?

Esther Gordillo with then-Education Secretary Josefina Vasquez Mota. (Photo: Mexico's Education Ministry)

After the arrest of union leader Doña Elba Esther, the most difficult is yet to come.


“Elba Esther Gordillo was arrested,” was the most shocking news across the hemisphere lately. Gordillo, as almost every opinion-maker, political and business leader in Latin-American knows, was the head of Mexico’s uber-powerful teachers union, the National Educational Workers Union (SNTE), the largest in Latin America.

Gordillo’s arrest, on charges of embezzling nearly $156 million in union funds, is no ordinary judicial action. Her behind-the-scenes influence has long been an open secret in Mexico. However, Gordillo is a feared, but not loved, figure – and as the failings of the Mexican education system have become increasingly apparent, the recently elected government of President Enrique Peña Nieto may have seen its opening.


The 2012 documentary film De Panzazo (“Barely Passing”), produced by the advocacy group Mexicanos Primeros, immortalized Ms. Gordillo as a leader obsessed with protecting and expanding her power. Meanwhile, Mexican test scores are near the bottom of the OECD’s international PISA rankings. Barely half of students make it past the elementary level, and seven of 10 adolescents can’t pass basic reading or multiplication tests. All this in a country that has the OECD’s second-highest rate of public spending on education.

Getting rid of Gordillo alone won’t fix this. But she has invariably been a key impediment to any serious reform. In 2008, then Education Minister (and later presidential candidate) Josefina Vasquez Mota pushed for an ambitious reform to create the first national teacher performance test. The law barely passed due Gordillo’s vociferous opposition, and Vasquez Mota resigned soon afterwards – pushed, according to many observers, by Gordillo’s allies in the government.

Thus, Gordillo’s arrest so early into Peña Nieto’s term may be more than a simple show of force against a dangerous rival. It may also be a signal that the PRI government is taking its commitment to education reform seriously, and is seeking to remove the greatest obstacles to implementing fundamental changes in the way the teachers union controls the education process.


Peña Nieto’s announcement of a sweeping new education reform, only the day before Gordillo’s arrest, gives credence to this view. Gordillo had loudly opposed the reform effort, boycotting last Monday’s event at the Presidential Palace, and her adversarial relationship with the current Education Minister, Emilio Chuayffet, would have made the implementation of any reform efforts painful. Instead, two days later the SNTE had selected a new leader, Juan Diaz de la Torre, who immediately announced the union’s support for the President’s efforts to improve Mexican education.

It will certainly be helpful for Peña Nieto to have a partner, even a cautious one, at the SNTE rather than an avowed enemy. However, the most difficult part of reform is yet to come. The President’s plan has three ambitious plans, all of which will face a multitude of challenges in their implementation. First is the creation of Professional Teachers Service to ensure that the only basis for becoming or advancing as a teacher or supervisor is a clear set of merit-based guidelines. Second are a number of mechanisms for evaluating and improving teacher performance, including empowering the National Institute for Educational Evaluation with full autonomy and oversight. Finally, there will be the efforts to improve school quality and the student environment, primarily by increasing school autonomy. All of these will be challenges with or without Doña Esther standing in the way.


But her downfall – pending, of course, the outcome of the investigation against her – has already reverberated across Latin America, demonstrating its powerful symbolism. Few in the region are unaware of who she is, and the legend of her grip on power has transcended the Mexican context. She is in the mold of other larger-than-life union leaders such as Al Shanker, who led the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997 and embodied a generation of militant union activists.

It remains to be seen if the charges against her stick, and it also remains to be seen if the PRI government will sustain the political commitment to potentially controversial reforms. But it is clear that reform is desperately needed, and Gordillo’s fall from grace represents an excellent opportunity for a giant leap forward – if the President can grasp it.

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

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