From: Inside Story America

Mexico: Taking down ‘The Teacher’

Is the arrest of the country’s teachers’ union head a political ploy or an attempt to reform its education system?

The longtime leader of Mexico’s powerful teachers’ union has been charged with embezzling millions of dollars from the union.

This is a matter of accountability, it was an important symbol to initiate criminal charges for activities that were out of bounds. However, I think, all of us in Mexico need to focus on what comes next which is how we fix an education system that needs a lot of work.

– Mois Cherem, CEO of Enova an advocacy

Mexico arrested Elba Esther Gordillo on suspicion of embezzling $200 million of union funds and using intermediaries to move money to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, then back to the United States, in order to buy property in San Diego and pay for works of art and plastic surgery.

Known as La Maestra or ‘The Teacher’, Gordillo headed the National Union of Education Workers or SNTE, which is estimated to have 1.5 million members.

It is a significant voting bloc in Mexico and with Gordillo’s backing – it helped to swing a close presidential election in Felipe Calderon’s favour in 2006.

A generation of Mexican presidents have steered clear of taking on Gordillo – despite years of allegations of corruption and accusations that the union was undermining the education system. 

Less than half of Mexican students complete high school, despite nearly one-fourth of the country’s annual budget going to education.

Enrique Pena Nieto chose Elba Esther Gordillo as an ideal target to try to get a legitimacy that he didn’t get at the polls. What is at stake is more of a political move that goes beyond education and the project of real modernisation of education in Mexico City … is not a question of accountability but more of a settlement of accounts and that is a real pity …

– Irma Sandoval, Institute for Social Research of National Autonomous

Critics say most of the money is spent on teachers’ salaries but, many times, teachers who were paid, either did not exist or were deceased. 

But, change may be underway. Reforms enacted a day before Gordillo’s arrest, seek to weaken the union’s hold on hiring and evaluating teachers.

Supporters of the new education law say it will shift control over the school system to the government from the teachers’ union.

  • It seeks to introduce merit-based hiring and promotion, instead of appointments by the union
  • Teachers will have to undergo regular assessments
  • A census will be held to identify the number of schools, teachers and students in the country
  • The reform also extends learning hours in some 40,000 public schools
  • The union says the reforms could lead to massive redundancies
  • And other critics argue the changes could help bring in privatisation of education in Mexico

President Pena Nieto says hiring will be based only on merit, instead of the old system under which teaching positions could be sold or inherited.

But some question whether Gordillo’s arrest is more of a political move by the ruling PRI – which clashed with her back in 2006. Opposition legislators say Pena Nieto also needs to move against other powerful union bosses to ensure lasting change.

So to discuss this on Inside Story Americas, with presenter Kimberly Halkett, are guests Irma Sandoval, an associate professor at the Institute for Social Research of National Autonomous at the University of Mexico; Mois Cherem, the founder and CEO of Enova, a Mexican education advocacy group; and Christopher Wilson, an associate at the Mexico Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center.