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Lawmakers Pass Education Reform to Tame Mexico Teacher Union

Lizbeth Diaz - Reuters
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December 21, 2012
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Union Boss Elba Esther Gordillo has inspired admiration and hatred throughout her more than 20-year stint as head of the SNTE. (Cuartoscuro)

MEXICO CITY - Mexican lawmakers on Friday approved an education reform bill that aims to rein in the powerful teachers' union, which many have blamed for hurting school quality in Latin America's second biggest economy.

Lawmakers in the lower house of Congress voted 360 to 51 in favor of the bill, submitted by President Enrique Pena Nieto after he took office this month in a move to undercut the power of the teachers union that had long backed his party.

The reform requires teacher competency exams and merit-based promotions and chips away at the union's power to hire teachers on its own terms.

The education reform is part of a broader pact signed by the country's top parties a day after Pena Nieto's inauguration.

Pena Nieto, 46, returned to power his centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, after 12 years in the opposition, promising to push a sweeping reform agenda. No party holds an outright majority in Congress.

The pact aims to break years of political gridlock and move forward fiscal and energy reforms to jumpstart the Mexican economy after decades of sluggish growth.

The education bill, which changes the constitution, must be approved by a majority of Mexico's 31 state legislatures.

Mexico's teachers' union has more than 1 million members and is considered Latin America's biggest union. Its leaders have for years blocked attempts at education reform while also influencing the outcome of presidential elections.

Many teachers favor the reforms. Union-controlled jobs can be passed down through families, and jobs often need to be bought from the union, teachers interviewed by Reuters said.

But teachers' union leader Elba Esther Gordillo pledged to organize opposition. Widely seen as one of Mexico's most powerful politicians, she has led the organization since the late 1980s and her support helped secure former President Felipe Calderon's narrow victory over his leftist rival in 2006.

"You do not threaten teachers, you do not tell teachers that they must comply or you will hurt them," she said this week.

A former PRI grandee who broke with her old party before the 2006 general election, Gordillo was re-elected in October. Pena Nieto's PRI had strong ties with the union during the 71 years it ruled Mexico before the conservative PAN party ousted it in a 2000 election.

Poor education standards are frequently blamed for holding back Mexico's economy. Mexico's students lag other industrialized nations, especially in mathematics and science, according to a 2011 survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

One educator, who has worked for six years under temporary contracts without benefits, welcomed the attempt to curb the union's power.

"It is all about who you know," the teacher said, asking not to be named. "You finish university, you get a masters degree, you keep up with new studies but if you do not have influence in the union, the door is shut," he said.

Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper and Miguel Gutierrez; Writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by David Gregorio

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