Latest News

Mexico's subpar schools put shackles on its future

Teacher Blanca Isabel Banuelos instructs her pupils in semidarkness. The power has been cut to her one-room school for lack of payment.

Kindergarteners run about, damp with sweat in the languid heat of the village La Chiripa, set amid shrimp farms on the Pacific Coast. Without electricity, the fans can’t relieve the swelter.

“We need to have a fan working because the kids get hot,” Banuelos lamented.

Conditions aren’t much better at another dingy school nearby, where pieces of cardboard cover shattered windows, toilets rarely work and the sole computer broke down long ago.

When experts talk about Mexico’s future, they bemoan the condition of its schools. It’s here, they say, that Mexico’s possibilities of one day rivaling Europe as an economic power, something that would be an enormous benefit not just to this country but to the United States as well, founder.

It’s not that Mexico spends too little on education. Some 20 percent of government spending goes toward schools. “Mexico spends quite a bit,” said Lucrecia Santibanez, an education researcher at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research group with headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif.

But a series of unusual – even bizarre – practices govern schools, with some 90 percent of the spending going to teachers’ salaries, leaving little for building and maintaining schools and for buying textbooks and computers. “There just isn’t a correlation between the spending and the quality of education,” Santibanez said.

In Mexico, teaching jobs routinely are bought and sold. In three of the country’s 31 states, teachers’ offspring can inherit their posts, with minimal vetting of qualifications.

The massive national teachers union, the largest trade union in Latin America, has wrested partial control of education policy from the federal government and it fiercely blocks reforms. At its helm is an astute union chief with a title that matches her autocratic style: “president for life.”

Even basic information on education eludes the executive branch. No one in authority seems to know the number of public school teachers in Mexico. The best guess is somewhere between 1.1 million and 1.3 million.

Far clearer is the poor performance of the nation’s 34.9 million primary and secondary students. International assessments show nearly half of Mexico’s 15-year-olds failing at all but the most basic skills in math and science. Mexico ranks last in educational achievement of the 34 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a forum of democracies with market economies. Far less than 1 percent of Mexican students excel at advanced math, behind students in Uruguay, Chile, Argentina and Brazil, according to the OECD’s 2009 assessment.

The crisis has physical manifestations in the nation’s 233,000 primary and secondary schools: leaky roofs, peeling paint, blackboards with cracks, schools with satellite dishes for distance learning but no electricity to run them. Even drinking fountains have run dry.

“Ninety percent of schools in Mexico do not have potable drinking water,” said Jorge Javier Romero, a political scientist and education expert at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City. “Seventy percent don’t have a telephone. So how are they going to have Internet?”

The schools’ decline has been years in the making, despite the pledge of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution to spread literacy. For many, the blame lies with the National Education Workers Union, whose members are valued for political fealty, not pedagogic skills. Formed in 1949, the union became one of the pillars girding the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI in its Spanish initials, the party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and whose candidate is thought all but certain to win the presidency again in voting July 1.

Even with the PRI out of power for the past 12 years, union clout didn’t diminish. By law, all teachers are enrolled in the union ranks, and 1 percent of their salaries go to union coffers.

“It might have a bigger budget than many states. In fact, it is a state within a state,” said David Calderon, the general director of Mexicanos Primero, a civic group that’s pushing for deep educational reforms.

His group estimates the revenue flow from dues, government contributions and business investments to the union at 1.8 billion pesos each quarter, or about $130 million. Other experts offer lower estimates. Since union leaders aren’t required to detail how they spend the money, no one outside the union knows for sure.

The union holds no truly democratic elections, and Calderon described it as “a mix of the Soviet model and Chicago in the 1920s.”

“Why do we have a union like this? Because it is very convenient for our presidents,” he said. “It is an electoral force and also a mechanism of control and mediation with state governments.”

Since reforms in the 1990s that devolved power to states, presidents have faced uneasy confrontations with elected state leaders, and “weak presidents need a strong ally to control the governors,” Calderon said.

The power of Mexico’s teachers union has few parallels in the world, and its chief, La Maestra – “The Teacher” – as Elba Esther Gordillo is known, wields influence far beyond the sphere of education. Indeed, her union began its own political party in 2005, the National Alliance, and it now has five deputies and four senators in Congress. Its candidate in the July 1 elections polls in fourth place.

The union wields its muscle to protect teachers, not to improve education. By some estimates, it has taken 21,000 teachers out of the classroom to handle union business, organize political rallies, chauffeur union leaders and broker the buying and selling of teaching jobs.

Teachers are more beholden to union delegates than they are to principals, and some routinely skip classes, leaving pupils on the playground all day.

“Teacher absenteeism is a real problem,” said Francisco Bravo, an elementary school principal in Mexico City who leads a branch of a dissident group. Union leaders “take teachers out of the classroom to help campaign.”

A third of elementary school teachers say their fellow teachers “occasionally or frequently have unjustified absences” or show up late. Fully two-thirds of high school teachers say that’s the case.

Frustrations run high at many schools, as administrators scrape for money and parents bristle at unforeseen fees.

In San Blas, a coastal city in Nayarit state, Principal Fernando Flores takes a visitor through his primary school, showing a classroom jammed with 43 students and pointing to air conditioners, overhead fans and inkjet printers – all broken.

“Sit in my desk and tell me how to resolve this,” Flores said, adding that administrators have little choice but to seek contributions from parents.

“Then they go to the newspapers and the radio and complain, ‘They are charging fees, and this goes against Article Three of the Constitution that says education is free!’”

Indeed, Mexico’s Constitution says “All education given by the state shall be free.” But parents know they have no way to see this guarantee carried out.

The flaws in Mexico’s educational system take their greatest toll on students. Of every 100 Mexicans who enter primary school, only 24 finish high school, Mexicanos Primero says.

A withering documentary on the education crisis released in February, “De Panzazo” – “Barely Passing” – ponders why Mexico and South Korea took such divergent development paths. In 1984, the two nations were on a par, with annual per capita income of $2,190, it says.

But South Korea has given far greater emphasis to education. Its sixth-graders spend more than twice as much time in class as their Mexican counterparts, it says. By 2009, South Korea’s per capita income had soared to $19,830, while Mexico’s had risen only to $8,960.

Mexican teachers’ annual salaries are comparatively high, ranging from the equivalent of $15,658 to $42,621, far above the national average of $7,495.

Loyalty to the union trumps merit when it comes to raises.

“Whoever takes part in birthday celebrations (of union leaders) or marches or political activities easily surpasses the salary of teachers who have been working for 20 or 25 years,” said Claudio San Juan, a school supervisor in Xalapa in Veracruz state on the Gulf Coast.

Few teaching jobs are earned by merit. Rather, they are bought and sold.

“I am a chemical engineer,” begins an ad on the website “I will buy a teaching job in the city of Veracruz or in Puebla in a high school.”

Jobs can sell for anywhere from around the equivalent of $2,500 to $14,000, depending on the desirability of the location.

In some rural schools, teachers live in their classrooms, returning to their distant homes on weekends. New teachers often receive posts far from where they live, demanding difficult commutes on buses and on foot.

But if teachers put up with such conditions, the job provides huge security.

“It’s really impossible to fire a teacher, even for horrendous violations like raping a student,” said Santibanez, the RAND researcher.

Experts say parents and the prevailing culture are also at fault. Polls find that half of Mexicans are satisfied with the schools, oblivious to the system’s shortcomings, and that parents spend more on entertainment and recreation than they do on education.

Still, many teachers feel a calling. That’s apparent in this village of 320 people. Despite the poor conditions of her primary school, teacher Veronica Ruiz Robles offers her class of 27 students a lively math lesson, using bags that contain varying weights of goods.

“Perla, how much is a half kilo and a half kilo?”

“Yes, one kilo,” Ruiz nods.

“How many of you sell shrimp from your homes? Melanie? And how do you sell it? That’s right, using the scale.”

Over at the nearby preschool and kindergarten, teacher Banuelos, who’s only 19 and is completing an unpaid internship, said she relied on the kindness of parents when she traveled from the capital of Tepic to La Chiripa each week to offer classes. The parents of her students take turns providing her with meals and a place to sleep.

“They coordinate among themselves on who will give me food and where I will stay,” she said. “I change houses every week.”

Related stories from Bellingham Herald