Mexican leader retreats on education reform as teachers rampage

Ratcheting up violence in the run-up to Sunday’s midterm elections, Mexico’s renegade teachers have won a stunning concession from President Enrique Peña Nieto: the indefinite shelving of teacher evaluations.

Twenty civil society groups on Monday lashed out at Peña Nieto, calling the abandonment of teacher evaluations and uniform hiring practices an “unconstitutional” betrayal of promises to wrest control of schools from a powerful union.

“We regret that with this action, the federal government boycotts the implementation of the education reform,” the groups said in a statement. “We demand that President Enrique Peña Nieto reverse this announcement and not allow education in Mexico to be subject to blackmail and used as a political bargaining chip.”

Some of the nation’s most prominent think tanks and advocacy groups signed the statement, including the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, Mexican Transparency, Mexicanos Primero and México Evalúa.

Education Secretary Emilio Chuayffet announced the “indefinite suspension” of teacher evaluations in a brief message Friday night on his secretariat’s website. The message was later deleted.

Even with the concession from the Peña Nieto government, angry teachers shut down schools Monday in much of Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guerrero and Chiapas states, closing the doors on millions of pupils. The strike is to last until June 8.

Striking teachers burned an elections office in Juchitán and trashed a similar office in Tehuantepec, both in Oaxaca state, a hotbed of teacher dissent.

Assailants tossed Molotov cocktails and ignited small fires at Education Secretariat and elections offices early Monday in the industrial city of Puebla, an automotive manufacturing hub.

Hundreds of teachers belonging to the National Coordinator of Education Workers, a militant wing of the powerful national teachers’ union, gathered in central Mexico City to march on the main plaza.

The striking teachers want abolition of the education reform and higher pay. Median teacher salaries are about $15,000 a year at current exchange rates, well above what average Mexicans earn.

Analysts warned that the pre-vote retreat on education reform underscored the political weakness of Peña Nieto and his failure to rally public support for broader overhauls that he pushed through after taking office in late 2012.

The education overhaul, now enshrined in the constitution, requires eventual uniform evaluations of teachers with specific criteria. It would base promotions on merit as well as seniority.

It also would have allowed federal authorities to centralize payrolls to avoid widespread featherbedding. The National Statistics Institute last year found that 39,222 teachers were collecting salaries without reporting to work. Another 30,695 were paid for carrying out union duties outside of the classroom.

Despite high rates of spending per student, Mexico ranks at the bottom of the charts on student performance for member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a forum of 34 industrialized nations.

Even parts within the government voiced surprise at the education retreat.

“By not guaranteeing the right to a quality education, this decision is contrary to the higher interests of Mexican youth,” the National Institute for Educational Assessment, a federal entity, said in a statement.

Voters on Sunday will elect the entire lower house (500 seats), nine of 32 governors, and mayors and local legislative representatives in 16 states.

Peña Nieto’s approval ratings remain at historically low levels, yet his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is positioned to remain the largest party in Congress.

Even so, social discontent is high, fueled by corruption scandals that have discredited all major established political parties.