Last month, the success of the Chicago teachers’ strike forced the mainstream media to present a rare picture of public school teachers: as organized, defiant and victorious. But prior to the Chicago teachers winning a major deal, there was no shortage of dismissive, condescending and misleading coverage of teachers unions.
Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radio, USA Today, McClatchy, the Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.
A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries – negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.
The source Ornelos cites, Mexicanos Primero, is a think tank that seems to closely align its politics (and name) with high-power U.S. reform groups like Students First. In the vein of “Won’t Back Down”, Mexicanos Primero has sponsored its own cinematic screed on teachers, “¡de Panzazo!” (“barely passing”), depicting corruption and incompetence throughout Mexico’s education system.
Both ¡de Panzazo!‘s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.
In both Mexico and the United States, schools are an ideological battleground. Corporate-minded school-reform groups such as Mexicanos Primero and Students First promote curbing teachers’ unions, tiering their pay schemes, and running schools more like businesses in an educational “marketplace.”
To suggest that unions are primarily driving Mexico’s educational challenges is to echo the corporate reformers in the U.S. that pit “unions” against “reform”. This myopic mentality misses the fact that educational policy reflects the priorities of the political class while silencing communities and thus masking the underlying crises that affect educational achievement.
In fact, rank-and-file teachers are often at the helm of movements for real educational equity. Dissident members of SNTE, known as Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), have actively challenged authoritarian union officials, and at the same time resisted hardline reforms they see as corrosive to a democratic, broad-based education. They’ve also mobilized against sweeping new neoliberal labor legislation.
Reporting on teacher protests last year in Oaxaca (the site of a mass uprising in 2006) Dan LaBotz noted that the dissident educators demonstrated not only against education authorities’ plans to impose a controversial national exam system, but also against Gordillo’s rule:
Teachers blockaded government offices and private companies, closed major intersections, and “liberated” the toll booths on the privately owned highway to Mexico City. They also attempted to shut down the airport….
The Oaxaca teachers are making no new wage demands. They insist, however, that the Oaxaca state government install computers in all elementary schools and pay the schools’ electric bills. According to union spokespeople utility bills are currently paid by parents.
In a statement on CNTE’s blog posted in August, the group called the reform agenda an assault on the government’s obligation to provide free basic public education. Also the CNTE calls the standardized testing system “an insult to the economic, cultural and social development of our country because [of] deepened inequality of schools, students and teachers.”
Marco Fernandez, an education scholar who has written on education and union reform, says that dissident-led strikes and protests hurt more than help. “I cannot see how the teachers’ absenteeism and strikes [will lead to] the quality of education that a kid needs… for eventually getting a good job,” he says. When labor disputes lead to disruptive actions that upend schooling and testing, he argues, “The ones that in the long run pay the consequences are the kids. And this is a tragedy.”
Yet some see corruption baked into the core of education policy. Educational researcher Manuel Gil-Antón of the College of Mexico, publicly warned that authorities might aggravate persistent educational inequities and that the official reforms might lead to “manipulating the data and an unjustified triumphalism.”
Longtime labor journalist David Bacon, who has tracked cross-border solidarity movements, tells Working In These Times that in the school reform debate in Mexico, as in the U.S., tends to zero in on teachers while ignoring deeper social deficits; one key problem is simply that schools are deeply underresourced and many families simply can’t afford education. In the long run, he says, “These are social problems that you can’t cure with an educational system… You need a fundamental social change in Mexico, a part of which would be making everybody literate. But you can’t make everybody literate in the absence of other changes that are gonna happen in their lives.”
Bacon sees teachers not only as political actors, but bearers of a progressive tradition in Mexico:
If you go into little towns in Mexico out in the countryside, teachers are community leaders… in very large part, they are also the repositories of progressive values and ideas. So if you talk to Mexican workers, people will use words like “capitalism,” and “the working class,” and even “socialism,” and it’s because there are teachers who are giving this understanding to their students.
While many Americans may write off Mexico and its schools as “Third World” bastions of corruption, teachers’ resistance to neoliberal reforms is a striking parallel to the school labor dramas in Chicago and across the United States. Maybe rank-and-file educators in Oaxaca and Chicago can exchange best practices on how to take their fights outside the classroom and bring a lesson in solidarity to the streets.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.