By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
After holding a massive two-day protest outside Mexico’s San Lázaro Congressional Palace earlier in the week (which forced Chamber of Deputies President Porfirio Muñoz Ledo to suspend all sessions until Tuesday, March 26) and meetings on Thursday, March 21, with representatives of both the Education Secretariat and the Interior Secretariat (Segob), leaders of the nation’s militant National Coordination of Education Workers (CNTE) union reached an agreement with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) administration to halt their demonstrations, the president said Friday, March 22.
Speaking during his daily early morning press conference, AMLO said that the CNTE protest had been the result of a “misunderstanding” between the government and the teachers, who feared that a nationwide Education Reform implemented by López Obrador’s predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, would continue to be enforced.
That reform, which was passed in 2013, restructured the entire Mexican education system, including the elimination of automatic job placement for education graduates and the banning a longstanding practice of allowing retiring teachers to pass on their guaranteed government-paid positions to friends or relatives, regardless of their “heirs’” academic qualifications.
The 1.5-million.member-strong National Teacher’s Union (SNTE) and its the confrontational offshoot CNTE radically opposed the reform, and AMLO campaigned on a platform to abolish it entirely, along with Peña Nieto’s other landmark legislation of Energy Reform, which opened part of the country’s sacred-cow and now-moribund state-run oil industry to private-sector investment.
As a result of the CNTE’s historic political stranglehold, Mexican public education has consistently been rated among the lowest in the Americas, despite lapping up more than 10 percent of the entire national budget.
Archaic practices forbidding teacher performance reviews and dismals on any grounds have kept the union in power for decades, with scandalous internal power struggles between its leaders that have even been linked to possible murders and other serious crimes.
In 2013, notorious SNTE head honcho Elba Esther Gordillo was arrested on charges of embezzlement and misappropriation of union funds, but she was released late last year during the final months of Peña Nieto’s six-year term.
Peña Nieto’s Education Reform was intended to reverse the Mexican education system’s archaic practices, creating standardized testing for students, teacher evaluation programs and the possibility to fire unqualified education workers.
Understandably, the reform was met with immediate strikes and protests from CNTE radicals – especially in Mexico’s underdeveloped and poorer southern states – who took heart in AMLO’s condemnation of the 2013 law during his 2018 campaign.
AMLO condemned the Education Reform in part because he opposed virtually any legislation implemented by his lifelong nemesis Peña Nieto, but also because he said it opened the door for the potential privatization of public schools and because he felt that poorer states should not be held to nationwide education standards.
During his press conference on Friday, AMLO said that he had reassured the CNTE members that Peña Nieto’s Education Reform was “dead” and its policies will no longer be enforced.
He also said that there had been a number of “misunderstandings” on the part of the CNTE leadership, who feared that parts of the reform would remain in force.
“I want all of Mexico’’s teachers to know that I have no other intention than to cancel the evil known as the Educaton Reform,” he said.
“We will keep our word on that.”
AMLO also said that public education in Mexico will remain “free and obligatory” through higher levels and that teachers’ rights will be respected.
In January, López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 last year, faced one of his first political crises when a group of CNTE members in the industrial state of Michoacán staged a protest blocking crucial railroad lines linking the capital of Morelia with its chief export port Lázaro Cardenas.
Those teachers were demanding back pay, bonuses and other benefits that were suspended late last year.
At first, AMLO tried to hand off the problem of the protesting teachers to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) to sort out, but when the CNHD volleyed the ball back into López Obrador’s political court, he eventually gave in and sent money to the state to settle the CNTE’s grievances.