One of the most fundamental features of poverty and inequality in Mexico comes in the form of educational corruption. Despite its size and economic power, Mexico’s education system is rampant with inequality and inefficiency: according to recent rankings in 2018, among OECD countries, Mexico’s national higher education system ranked a mere 46 out of 50. As a result, education reform in Mexico has reemerged as a major focus of national politics in recent years.
The victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, has highlighted education reform in the country’s 2018 general elections. Although AMLO and his MORENA party had promised to bring about seismic change and reform to Mexico’s public education system, ongoing corruption and the country’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic may halt any hope of bringing change to this important issue.
Nieto’s 2013 Reform Plan
The contemporary debate over education reform in Mexico dates back to the beginning of Enrique Peña Nieto’s presidency in 2012. During the campaign, Nieto had promised to tackle the deep-rooted corruption in Mexico’s national teacher’s union. The national teacher’s union in Mexico is the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or SNTE, an organization ubiquitous in the country for its kickbacks, bribery, record manipulation and various other forms of corruption.
Nieto’s reform aimed to restructure the distribution of salaries and the overall payroll policies of the SNTE, which entered law soon after his ascendancy to the presidency. Primarily, the reform enforced performance-based criteria for hiring and salaries, with promotions and bonuses being based on students’ testing results. Furthermore, the reform has placed more control over school management and bureaucracy in the hands of the federal government instead of the SNTE.
Criticisms of Nieto’s Education Reform in Mexico
Nevertheless, a significant wing of the SNTE and Mexican teachers, in general, have found Nieto’s education reforms to be inadequate or outright malevolent. Even with a new performance-based structure, the issues of a bloated bureaucracy and unequal spending continued to be a significant issue.
Importantly, Nieto’s reform did not address the inequalities of the education system. Five years into Nieto’s education reform policy, many of the same differences in quality of instruction and schooling between Mexico’s rich and poor remained the same. According to Patricio Solís, a professor at the Center for Sociological Studies of the National Institute, young Mexicans in the highest income group have seven times greater access to higher education than those in the lowest income group.
Nieto’s popular mandate in fighting corruption in Mexico’s education system came to a sudden halt in 2016 when violent protests broke out between dissident teachers and Mexican police in the southwestern state of Oaxaca leaving six people dead. Many of these demonstrators were members of the SNTE who viewed Nieto’s education reform as inadequate; they criticized the redistribution of funding, the recently adopted merit-based philosophy for promotions and the arrest of several union leaders on charges of money laundering.
AMLO’s Reform in 2018
AMLO, Mexican’s first left-wing president of the 21st century, made discontent with Nieto’s educational reform a central tenet of his 2018 campaign. The 66-year-old often said on the campaign trail that Nieto had “turned education into a business.”
The scrapping of Nieto’s education reform under the new administration had two primary components; firstly, repealing the merit-based structuring to salaries and promotions which had come under fire from Mexican teachers and the public at large, and, secondly, expanding access to free higher education among the country’s most impoverished children. This latter part involved the construction of over 100 new public universities and the introduction of public scholarships for 300,000 students.
Nevertheless, many ordinary citizens and experts alike have criticized these new policies under AMLO. For example, Alexandra Zapata, director at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness in Mexico City, views the repeal of the merit-based system as a way for corruption to grow internally. She believes educational achievement criteria may be less trustworthy than under the previous system. Furthermore, much of the revenue for free higher education came at the expense of funding for early learning and primary care, resources that many rural and impoverished Mexican families desperately need. Zapata believes that the greatest efficiency for upward social mobility comes at the beginning of education, not at the university level. The question of to what extent this balance between earlier education and higher education can alleviate the issue of inequality in Mexican education can only be determined down the road.
COVID-19 and Education Reform
Like many other places around the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown have created a paradigm-shifting challenge for public education in Mexico. Stay-at-home orders early in the spring shut down Mexican public schooling; the access to resources for learning at home, such as internet connection and computer hardware, has further exacerbated the educational and economic gap between Mexico’s richest and poorest.
However, some experts view the chaos stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to kickstart real, lasting reform in Mexico’s public education system. Julia Coyoli, a Ph.D. candidate from Harvard focusing on educational reform in Latin America, believes that home-schooling and remote learning will shine a public light on the underlying inequities in the country’s public education system. Once these blatant injustices come into the light, it should force the Mexican government to take more of a stand-in specifically targeting low-income students’ education.
– Jason Beck