Andres Oppenheimer

This may turn out to be a historic week for Mexico. After decades of unsuccessful efforts to modernize its public education system, President Enrique Pena Nieto's government arrested almighty teachers' union leader Elba Esther Gordillo and - perhaps more important - signed a constitutional amendment that will allow key education reforms.

The amendment was signed Monday after being approved by Mexico's three largest political parties and despite strong opposition from Gordillo's National Education Workers Union. But an implementing bill, which is expected to be passed within the next six months, is still required.

But judging from what I saw during a visit to Mexico City this week, while there is a risk that Congress could pass a watered-down implementing bill, Gordillo's surprise arrest may change things. The fact that she was arrested on tax evasion and corruption charges and the ensuing public uproar over alleged evidence that she spent about $3 million shopping in Neiman Marcus stores over the past three years may put pressure on legislators to end the teachers' union's historic control of the country's education policies.

Among other things, the amendment establishes mandatory teacher evaluations and requires that hiring and the promotion and merit pay of teachers be subject to evaluation scores. It also allows schools to fire under-performing teachers, something that has been strongly resisted by the union.

Until now, Gordillo's 1.7 million-member union has pretty much decided who gets hired as a teacher, and who gets promoted. Thanks to the union's political power - it even has a political party with senators and congressmen - teachers in Mexico enjoy lifelong jobs, regardless of their skills.

This had led to declining education standards and corruption. In voluntary evaluation tests performed in recent years, more than half of Mexico's teachers could not solve basic math and science problems. And teaching jobs were often bought by unskilled applicants, who paid as much as $10,000 for a lifelong teaching position, as Gordillo herself conceded to me in a 2010 interview.

As a result of this perverse education system, Mexico has long ranked at the lower end of the worldwide standardized PISA test of 15-year-olds. In the last PISA test held in 2009, Mexico ranked 51st among the 65 countries that participated in the test.

When I asked the president's chief of staff, Aurelio Nuno, just hours before Gordillo's arrest, whether there isn't a risk that the new education reforms will be watered down by Congress, he shook his head, indicating "no way."

Nuno said that it's in the government's interest that the education reform be fully enforced, because that will allow Pena Nieto to embark on his planned telecommunications, energy and fiscal reforms with greater political capital.

"If you pass an effective reform, you are politically stronger to pass the next reform," Nuno said.

Julio Castellanos, a former senior education ministry official and a strong critic of Pena Nieto's ruling party, is among many opposition members who applaud the education reforms. "Giving constitutional status to these agreements turns them into something that everybody has to comply with," he said.

Asked about Gordillo's arrest, David Calderon, head of the nonpartisan Mexicanos Primero, an advocacy group that fights for quality education, said it would help speed up the reforms. Gordillo's arrest and the public uproar over her shopping sprees will make it difficult for legislators to side with the teachers' union in the upcoming congressional debate, he said.

My opinion: While Gordillo's arrest made the biggest headlines by far, the most important test for Mexico's future will be whether Congress passes a strong implementing law to enforce the new constitutional amendment's reforms. That would be critical to help reduce poverty, by giving Mexico's poor a better education that would allow them to get better jobs, making Mexico more competitive and more prosperous.

It won't be a matter of firing hundreds of thousands of teachers who get bad evaluations. The teachers' union rightly states that bad teachers deserve to be trained, and that they deserve a second - and perhaps third - chance to get tested. But if this process is allowed to stretch over 10 years, or be open-ended, as the teachers' union wants, Mexico's constitutional education reform will end up being just an inspirational document.

The real battle for Mexico's education reform starts now. If the implementing bill reflects the letter and spirit of the new constitutional amendment, as now seems likely, it will indeed be a historic week for Mexico.







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