Contentious Education Reform in Mexico in the Spotlight as Labor Unrest Continues

By Mark Browne | June 16, 2016 | 12:20am EDT
Police prevent demonstrators marking Teacher's Day from approaching the Zocalo plaza in Mexico City, May 15, 2015 (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

Mexico City ( – A newly released study says Mexico needs to shift the focus of education reform urgently from primary to secondary schools and higher education, as the government wages a pitched battle with teachers and unionists who blocked highways and occupied buildings in ongoing protests against reforms passed in 2013.

The reforms, aimed at breaking the national union’s iron grip on teacher hiring and imposing measures to evaluate teacher performance, now face a new challenge as the government ratchets back spending on education for the first time in 10 years, according to Fiorentina Garcia, an investigator with the think tank CIEP.

A 1.8 percent reduction in spending this year may be a sign of more cuts to come as the government faces the impact of lower oil revenues, pressure on the value of the peso and shifts in priorities towards infrastructure and social spending, she said.

The government had increased education spending by 29 percent over the past decade.

A CIEP study released Tuesday found that Mexico spends 15 percent of the government’s total budget on education – more than any other single item. Some 97 percent of all education spending goes to primary schooling, and 87% of that is spent on teachers’ salaries alone.

Less than 1 percent of the total government education budget is spent on higher education, with just 1.3 percent spent at high schools, shortchanging young Mexicans, Fiorentina said. Some 30 percent of Mexicans aged 15-24 do not work or study and only 29 percent are enrolled in public schools.

“Mexico has to transition from focusing only on primary school to secondary and higher education,” she said.

The lower levels of enrollment in higher education will cost the government in lost tax revenues, Fiorentina said, noting that for every year of higher education students can expect a 20 percent increase in salary compared to their peers with just a high school education.

According to Sergio Cardenas, a professor and researcher with the Mexican think tank CIDA, a recent government study tied lower higher education enrollments to a lack of space at institutions of higher learning and insufficient family resources needed to support students at university.

The government, Cardenas said, actually spends more per pupil per capita on higher education than it does on primary or secondary education, but because higher-ed students tend to come from families with more resources, the spending favors students with more means.

He agreed current education reforms are not targeting higher education, and said union and teacher resistance is “predictable” given unions’ loss of hiring controls, and a shortage of government resources needed to enact reforms and improve teacher training.

Ongoing teacher protests in several states may be due to the fact that those states haven’t been distributing the resources needed to fund the reforms required by federal law, he said.

Mexico’s biggest challenge is getting teachers to back the reform effort, Cardenas noted, adding it was “way too early” to judge if reforms are working.

This week, protestors occupied banks and department stores and stopped trains in the state of Michoacán. They blocked highways at 14 different points in Oaxaca state, and thousands of teachers demonstrated in Guerrero state, demanding the release of two union leaders arrested by the government, El Universal reported.

On Wednesday, the Mexico City newspaper Reforma revealed new allegations of the diversion of union funds to bank accounts tied to the controversial National Education Workers’ Union boss Esther Gordillo.

After running the union for more than 20 years, Gordillo was arrested in 2013 while sitting in a private jet on an airport tarmac in Toluca, and convicted on organized crime and corruption charges.

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