JOSÉ MARÍA MORELOS, Mexico — Marco Antonio Poot Cahun grew up in a Maya community south of Cancún, where he says teachers put politics ahead of education at every election. He recalls them plying poor farmers with seed and fertilizer, paying cash for voter IDs so opponents wouldn’t cast ballots and even having his teacher knock on his door to give everyone hats and T-shirts.
Teachers have long played important roles in Mexican politics as opportunistic politicians and political parties have leveraged the teachers union’s organizational muscle and long reach into the country’s most remote pueblos — where educators are often influential individuals — to sway elections.
But a recently approved education overhaul proposes a radical change to the status quo by subjecting teachers to tests, making merit the criterion for promotions and putting limits on union influence in the hiring and firing process.
Teachers in many parts of Mexico have walked off the job in protest, saying the changes scapegoat them for the failings of a school system rife with insufficient infrastructure and so short on funds that parents in poor communities often pitch in to pay the electric bill for buildings that lack running water or even roofs.
Dissident sections of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), mostly from southern Oaxaca state, have halted traffic in Mexico City for three weeks with marches. They even set up a tent city in the central Zócalo square until heavily armed federal police equipped with tear gas and water cannons evicted them on Friday afternoon to make way for the annual independence celebrations Sunday.
“There are limits,” Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong said, referring to the eviction.
The marches come as President Enrique Peña Nieto pursues an agenda of structural reforms in areas such as education, energy and taxation — which his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), steadfastly opposed until regaining power in December 2012. Peña Nieto told General Strike USA.com such reforms are necessary so the country can overcome decades of subpar economic growth.
With the economy slowing down recently and the teacher trouble continuing, some political analysts say the fallout negatively impacts the president, whose party oversaw 71 straight years of authoritarian rule and would often say in recent years that it could restore order in the country.
“The impression that (the protests) give is that things are getting out of control … even though it’s not,” says Ilán Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City.
The Oaxaca teachers said they will stay put in the capital, leaving an estimated 1 million kids without classes in one of Mexico’s poorest states, where educators have struck annually for the past 30 years. Critics of the teachers say such behavior has brought benefits at the expense of education.
“This is classic rent extraction,” says Manuel Molano, adjunct-director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. “Every time that they march, they can actually get an increase in their budgets. There’s a profit margin.”
The teachers marching in Mexico City insist they’re not against exams, but they suspect that reform is more about removing labor rights such as reasonable pay and pensions than improving education — using evaluations as an example.
“They want to do this evaluation in order to fire us and leave us unemployed,” says Lucero Picón, who teaches in a Mexico City suburb.
Mexican students perform poorly on international standardized tests and ranked last on exams administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED.) But students in private schools performed little better, according to the makers of ¡De Panzazo!, a documentary critical of Mexican education and the teachers union.
Perceptions of problems in public schools prompt the middle classes to enroll their children in private schools, along with the chance for their children to befriend the offspring of more prominent people, who might be able to provide them useful contacts for employment later in life.
“What else would they be paying for?” asks Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.
A dislike of teachers union politics among the middle classes also has prompted private school growth, Estévez says.
Separating politics and the teachers union is almost impossible in Mexico, however. Teachers were PRI foot soldiers for decades, sent to spread national myths and blunt the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution once reviled by PRI politicians.
“Teachers are the political veins of many things,” Semo says.
But as the country began holding multiparty elections, the national union began hedging its bets. It worked with other parties when it suited its interests and founding a party of its own. Most notoriously, former SNTE boss Elba Esther Gordillo — deposed and imprisoned earlier this year for allegedly embezzling union money — boasted of brokering a deal with former president Felipe Calderón of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) to win the contentious 2006 election.
The president’s education reform has been interpreted by some as an attempt by the PRI to rein in the SNTE and its dissident sections — known as the National Education Workers’ Coordinating Committee — Semo says.
“To effectively head the union you have to have relations with all three (national) parties. For the PRI, this is promiscuity. For the union, it’s about survival,” Semo says. “The union brings approximately 3 million electoral votes. With this, you win elections.”
Poot, who recently went to his Mayan hometown of Tihosuco to inform locals on what the education reform entails, sees politics at play in his home state of Quintana Roo, where teachers allegedly had made deals with the PRI governor to win local elections earlier this year — only for to him stay silent on the education overhaul issue.
Teachers, who are not giving classes and occupying a protest camp in the state capital Chetumal, referred questions to a spokesman, who was unavailable for comment.
The protests may go on in vain, however. “It’s too late to revoke this reform,” Poot says.
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