Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, right, confers with Education Secretary Aurelio Nuño Mayer during a visit to Rodolfo Menendez Primary School in central Mexico City, on Dec. 7. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

Mexico’s hard-charging education secretary, ­Aurelio Nuño Mayer, has thrown teachers union leaders in jail, deployed federal police to guard teacher-testing sites, fired thousands of instructors and raised money to renovate 33,000 schools.

All in less than a year.

Mexico may be one of the world’s 20 biggest economies, but its dysfunctional education system is holding it back, officials and analysts say. To turn it around, Nuño hopes to make teaching more of a meritocracy, while taking on the powerful teachers unions long blamed for the poor results.

“The great battle of Mexico in the 20th century was education coverage, to extend schools all around the country,” said Javier Treviño, the deputy education secretary. “Now the great battle of the 21st century is quality.”

But education reform is especially risky for the 38-year-old Nuño, who came to the job after serving as President Enrique Peña Nieto’s chief of staff. The president’s party has relied on support from teachers unions for decades. A backlash by educators could tip the balance in favor of opposition parties in the next presidential election, which is set to be held in 2018. If the reform works, though, it could position Nuño as a successor to Peña Nieto and keep the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in power.

Mexico’s education system has long been troubled. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported this year that 55 percent of Mexican 15-year-olds were low performers in math, compared with an average of 23 percent in the 34 leading economies in the OECD. Mexico had similarly poor performances in reading and science. At the same time, itspends more on education as a percentage of total public expenditure than any other OECD country, according to a 2015 education report.

Mexico’s National Education Workers Union, which has more than 1 million members, is the largest trade federation in Latin America. Mexican teachers unions, politically influential and flush with dues collected from teachers, developed a reputation over the years for passing out jobs as political favors, while their leaders enriched themselves.

Peña Nieto, elected in 2012, has made reforming the education system a top priority. One of his government’s first moves was to arrest Elba Esther Gordillo, a longtime union leader once prominent in the PRI, on embezzlement and corruption charges. Since Nuño took over as education secretary, police have arrested at least four union leaders and issued arrest orders for dozens more on charges including destruction of property.

“This year in education will be brutally intense, with a level of transformation we haven’t seen in decades,” Nuño said in a recent interview under crystal chandeliers in his vast Mexico City office. The government wanted to end a history of union bosses promoting teachers based on loyalty and not ability, he said. “We are trying to transform a system that was clientelistic and opaque to a new system based on very clear rights and obligations, oriented toward merit.”

Nuño was a little-known political operative when he was appointed chief of staff to the president in 2012. He quickly emerged as a cunning strategist who corralled support from rival parties and orchestrated a flurry of constitutional changes aimed at opening up Mexico’s oil industry, breaking down powerful monopolies and modernizing the education system.

Among the most controversial education measures was a requirement that all of Mexico’s 1.2 million teachers be evaluated.

A dissident faction of the national teachers union based in Oaxaca, known as Section 22, was so outraged by the requirement that it threatened to boycott midterm congressional elections last summer. Teachers from Oaxaca seized the local airport and a gasoline distribution depot. They also took over state electoral centers and burned files and furniture. The government agreed to postpone the teacher testing, which Nuño admits was a “tactical” move, then quickly reversed course after the vote.

Nuño was appointed education secretary shortly after the election and made clear that he wouldn’t back down. He dissolved the Oaxaca state education institute, a government body that teachers union officials controlled, and started a new organization run by state authorities.

“The rule of law in the education system is absolute,” Nuño said. “In that, I’m going to be intransigent. In education, everyone’s going to comply with the law.”

While the Oaxaca faction has been the most visible in opposing the new testing, many Mexican teachers have criticized it. The mandatory exam lasts eight hours, at least, and covers the teachers’ mastery of their subjects, as well as teaching plans. Teachers who fail have opportunities to receive training and retake the exam.

Although most Mexican teachers who were summoned for the first rounds of testing showed up, the numbers fell off sharply in southern states such as Oaxaca, Chiapas and Guerrero, home to more-radical union chapters. In those areas, the government called in 5,000 federal police officers to secure testing facilities against protesters. In February, Nuño announced that more than 3,000 teachers who had failed to show up for any portion of the exam had been fired, without any severance.

Critics argue that the education changes are mostly administrative and that the standardized tests won’t improve teacher performance.

Nuño’s detractors have described him as an overbearing disciplinarian who is centralizing control over a school system with 36 million students, equal to the entire population of Canada.

“We’re not against evaluations, of course not,” said Enrique Enríquez Ibarra, the head of a Mexico City teachers union chapter allied with the dissidents. “But Nuño doesn’t know how to evaluate things, he doesn’t have any idea about teaching, nor about methods of learning. Nuño is a neophyte.”

Others see political motivations behind Nuño’s efforts.

“His program is all to create an image to serve his presidential career,” said Manuel Pérez Rocha, former rector of the Autonomous University of Mexico City and a columnist for the newspaper La Jornada.

The new reforms go beyond the teacher testing. Nuño has announced that every school will receive a new administrator to free up the principal to focus on education, rather than bureaucratic drudgery. He also has given schools the right to choose the number of school days in their year and adjust class hours to allow for differences between rural and urban schedules.

He visits schools across the country to get what he calls an unfiltered view of the problems in Mexican schools. By working with the government to issue new education bonds, he raised about $2.8 billion to refurbish dilapidated schools.

“He’s really focusing on the implementation,” said Treviño, the deputy education secretary. “He’s very disciplined.”

Gabriela Martinez contributed to this report.

Read more:

Mexican government wants to tame disruptive teachers’ union

Mexico’s miserable year

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