A Union's Grip Stifles Learning
Teaching Posts Inherited, Sold in Mexico's Public Schools
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 14, 2004; Page A01
POZA RICA, Mexico -- Jose Luis Gonzalez, the principal of a local middle school, received an unusual letter from a group of ninth-graders last semester. "Our teacher doesn't show up to class," the children wrote, begging him to replace their math instructor.
But Gonzalez said he was powerless to take action even though the teacher, Carlos Ignacio Loyda, was working another job and missed up to three-quarters of his classes some months. Loyda's position was protected by Mexico's powerful teachers union, Gonzalez said.
"It hurts the children," said Gonzalez, 55, a wiry, soft-spoken man who was a teacher for 17 years. Union clout protects teachers who don't "fulfill their obligations," he said. No-show teachers are such a huge problem that the state education department has printed posters reminding teachers that "attendance is essential."
A report by the World Economic Forum ranked the quality of education in Mexico 74th out of 102 nations surveyed, just behind Cameroon. The country's dismal marks contribute to lives of closed opportunities. Half of Mexico's population is trapped in poverty, illiteracy is endemic in rural areas, and the average child abandons school at 14. Success for millions of Mexicans means sneaking into the United States to mow lawns or pick apples.
Many Mexicans blame their teachers, or more precisely the National Education Workers Union, which represents 1.3 million educators. The trade union, the largest in Latin America, has created what critics describe as a monstrous system of perks and patronage, including a practice that allows teaching positions to be inherited and sold for cash.
"It is a corrosive power," said Carlos Ornelas, an education scholar who has written extensively about the union. He said the organization's might is behind the particularly short elementary school day -- only four hours of instruction -- and the lack of public information about how individual schools are performing. The union also holds veto power over a curriculum that is handed down from generation to generation.
Rafael Ochoa Guzman, the union's secretary general, defended the union and blamed poor educational performance on the federal government. "There is not just one cause that leads to our educational situation, but a mix of several factors: the funding of education, the lack of technology to help with learning, the low salaries of the teachers, the infrastructure," he said in an interview. "School buildings are in deplorable condition."
The relationship between the teachers union and the federal government has long been one of the commanding dramas of Mexican politics. During the 71-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, the union guaranteed the ruling party votes in exchange for a controlling interest in the education system. Although Mexico is more open since President Vicente Fox defeated the PRI in 2000, the union is a powerful legacy of an authoritarian past.
The union's president, Elba Esther Gordillo, is a federal congresswoman who headed the PRI in Congress until she was voted out of her leadership post in December. Gordillo, a major power broker in the country, declined requests for interviews.
Leticia Barba Martin, a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who ran a teachers college for 20 years, said the union "is a political force more than anything. It hurts education because it creates inertia and traditions that don't permit necessary changes."
A Long-Standing Custom
Josefa Hernandez, an energetic college graduate in the southern Mexican state of Puebla, said she had been unable for four years to land a teaching job through applications to state education officials. Finally, she said, a local school supervisor who belongs to the union told her he knew a teacher who had died, and offered to "work it out with the husband."
By long-standing custom in Mexico, a deceased teacher's children have first right of refusal for the job. If they don't want it, the surviving spouse often sells the position for thousands of dollars. Though the practice is illegal, it is common and often arranged by union leaders, according to two dozen interviews with teachers and education officials.
Hernandez said she paid $5,000 to the man, who initially demanded $8,000 for his late wife's job.
"At least I was able to bargain him down," said Hernandez, 29, who added that she thought the practice of selling jobs interfered with attracting the best teachers.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Josefa Hernandez said she purchased her fifth grade teaching position at a Puebla public school from the widow of her predecessor, for $5,000.
(Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)