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President Pena Nieto Proposes Sweeping Education Reform, Takes Union Head On

Associated Press
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December 11, 2012

Teachers union boss Elba Esther Gordillo of Mexico, shown in 2006 in Mexico City. (Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press)

MEXICO CITY — President Enrique Pena Nieto is proposing sweeping reforms to the public education system widely seen as moribund, taking on an iron-fisted union leader who is considered the country’s most powerful woman and the main obstacle to change.

Flanked by the leaders of Mexico’s three major political parties, Pena Nieto said Monday that he would send the initiative to Congress to among other things create a professional system for hiring and promoting teachers and not the “discretionary criteria” used in the current system, where teaching positions are often bought or inherited.

“That discretion often has left by the wayside thousands of well-prepared teachers with the capacity to become supervisors,” said Emilio Chuayfett, Pena Nieto’s newly appointed secretary of education.

The plan, with multi-party support, moves much of the control of the public education system from the 1.5-million-member National Union of Education Workers to the federal government.

It was Pena Nieto’s first major proposal since taking office Dec. 1 and is widely seen as a blow to union president Elba Esther Gordillo, who has played the role of kingmaker with many Mexican politicians. She currently controls the income and promotion of teachers and has been accused of using union funds as her personal pocket book.

Gordillo, leader for 23 years and often called the union leader for life, was conspicuously absent from the public announcement and did not respond immediately to an Associated Press request for an interview.

The proposal requires constitutional reform, meaning it would have to be ratified by congress and Mexico’s 31 states.

If it passes, it would be “the most important institutional change in the education system since the union was formed in 1943,” said Javier Romero, education expert and researcher at the Autonomous Metropolitan University. It would give teachers educational incentives to do their jobs rather than political ones, he said.

The proposal would also establish a federal census of education data in a country where no one knows exactly how many schools, teachers or students exist in the public system. It would extend learning hours in some 40,000 public schools.

Pena Nieto and the three major parties released of Pact for Mexico last week in which another education goal is to improve the level of Mexican students who complete middle to 80 percent and the number who complete high school to 40 percent. High school only recently became mandatory in the country.

The president said the change is crucial to make Mexico competitive in the new global technological market.

Jesus Zambrano, head of the rival Democratic Revolutionary Party who signed onto to Pena Nieto’s accord, was widely quoted over the weekend saying it was designed to take power away from Gordillo, who is capable of delivering millions of votes and whose political support has been key to several presidents.

A pact she made with former President Felipe Calderon was considered the single factor that handed Calderon his 2006 victory in a very tight race.

Gordillo has beaten back years of attacks from union dissidents, political foes and journalists who have seen her as a symbol of Mexico’s corrupt, old-style politics. Rivals have accused her of corruption, misuse of union funds and even a murder, but prosecutors who investigated never brought a charge against her.

She was expelled from Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2006 for supporting other parties’ candidates and the formation of her own New Alliance party.

Critics have accused her of amassing more than a dozen properties with millions of dollars. She has acknowledged some of the wealth, saying part was inherited.

Chuayfett said he would not interpret her absence from the announcement.

“What we’re clearly seeking, without specifying any certain people, is for the state to retake control of the education curriculum,” he told the AP.

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