Education Reforms in MexicoImproving education has been a consistent focus throughout Mexico for decades. Both the former and current presidents have created, stripped and appealed legislation in efforts to strengthen the education system. Two opposite reform strategies and impassioned teachers alike advocate the importance of progress, but the country’s previous president failed to truly achieve this goal. Education reforms in Mexico remain a top priority for the country, but the new president may fall short in a different way than his predecessor.

The Hard Truth

Even compared to the most economically disadvantaged children across the world, Mexican children are still academically outperformedincluding the few who fall above the poverty line. Ranking last out of the 35 OECD countries in education, children in the Mexican school system have the least proficient math, reading and literacy skills. This trend is not surprising: 20% of schools lack the basic necessities to operate including running water, food and furniture. There are buildings still in ruins from earthquakes dating back to 2015, and these conditions are amplified in the poorest states like Oaxaca.

Despite education being unversially free, up to 13% of childrenover one million studentscan not afford the supplies and transportation necessary to attend school. Less than 50% of students that attend public school graduate high school and only 60% are enrolled in primary school systems.

Native Mexican children are hit hardest in terms of education. Although the country is home to nearly 1.3 million children speaking native languages, only 55,000 teachers are fluent in these languages. In addition to this stark language barrier, systemic racism conducted by teachers against native children is also a persistent yet largely ignored issue.

Union Corruption

Education reforms in Mexico are at a standstill due to a failing economy, cyclical poverty and corruption. Prior to 2013, the teachers’ union had full control of choosing teachers. Rather than base staff selection on classroom results or experience, hiring was based upon union involvement. The union allowed teachers to sell their positions to anyone with no questions asked and granted life-long job security to teachers with failing grade averages.

Surprisingly, Mexico’s teacher salaries are close to $50,000 per year, making teaching a highly sought after job. The first-ever education census in 2014 revealed that the corrupt union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, who was imprisoned for embezzlement in 2013, allowed 39,000 ‘ghost teachers’ on payroll including teachers who had died, who never appeared in a classroom or who did not exist at all. This expenditure totaled $1.2 billion.

Former Legislation

In 2013 former president Peña attempted to rebrand education reform in Mexico by stripping the unions of their power. Peña gave the power to a body of the government that enacted rigorous assessments and exams. Teachers were subjected to three annual assessments and if they did not pass they were moved to an administrative job or let go. Despite the positive attempts at change, the legislation was met with opposition due to the recourse from poor evaluations and the integration of merit-based promotions.

Yet, none of the approved legislation addressed the needs of the schools themselves. Less than 7% of the GDP funding in 2016 was spent on schools both private and public. There has been no effort to supply teachers with the proper equipment or tools to give basic educational lessons. Only 5% of public spending went into the school systems; both percentages are far below the recommended percentage allocated to schools.

The New Reform

Last year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—also known as AMLOwas elected with a platform heavily focused on repealing the old school system. His campaign rallied around education reform in Mexico, placing it at the forefront of his first actions in office. In practice, the new legislation follows the same basic school structure and gives power to the unions that hired teachers; however, it is novel in that it eliminates teacher evaluations. Overall, this new system has received both praise and criticism from the people of Mexico. AMLO’s reformed plan aims to broaden school curricula by adding music, art and cultural studies to classrooms, rather than continuing to focus exclusively on STEM and humanities. Many of Mexico’s constituents believe this expansion of course offerings will remove limitations on children’s abilities to express themselves creatively.

Teachers are the backbone of education. However, without proper funding, resources and training, education reforms in Mexico are stuck in the recurring failures of the country’s leaders. Recent legislation has only shifted power from unions to the government and back to the unions. Without allocating money to the schools themselves, proper education for the children of Mexico will remain out of reach, leaving over half the population with a limited educational experience and overall quality of life.

– Amanda Rogers
Photo: Pulse News Mexico

Education in Mexico
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
Photo: Flickr

Poverty Rates in MexicoA few weeks ago, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) boarded a commercial flight with constituents on his way to meet President Donald Trump. Many viewed it as a rare presidential moment, considering the poverty rates in Mexico of 52.4 million people living in poverty. However, AMLO has justified his unique transportation method as a small gesture to those in poverty by saving government money.

Cause of Rising Poverty Rates

Unfortunately, COVID-19 continues to ravage Mexico’s globally-dependent economy and unequipped health system. Simultaneously, this massive group of people living in poverty is only going to expand. Addressing this growing crisis is not only our humanitarian duty as one of its major allies. Rising poverty rates in Mexico will also inevitably threaten the American people in two key ways.

A Persisting Opioid Epidemic

In 2017, President Trump declared the Opioid Epidemic as a national emergency, citing the rising cases of fentanyl overdose deaths. Despite the domestic focus on the problem, it has become more evident that a solution to save the tens of thousands of Americans dying in this crisis requires us to look to the source of the epidemic– Mexico. According to the acting Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) director, Mexican cartels have been responsible for the vast majority of synthetic drugs entering the U.S., including fentanyl.

Problematically, these cartels have been fueled by rising poverty rates in Mexico. In many places, economic hardship has allowed cartels to thrive. They have used protection and basic necessities as a powerful incentive to recruit historically poor populations. Also, vulnerability within many communities has allowed cartels to grow their influence through hollow gestures of aid. This turns cities towards helping their cause; because of this, despite growing civilian casualties in cartel wars, Mexican cartels have seen massive growth in influence and prowess, allowing for them to grow their opioid trade on the US-Mexican border. In order to minimize the cartel’s fueling of the Opioid Epidemic, the American government needs to do more to fight poverty within Mexico. It also needs to find a long term solution to curb the rooted influence most of these cartels have found.

Growing Human Trafficking Concern

Additionally, rising poverty rates in Mexico have pushed many Mexicans towards other illicit industries. According to the London School of Economics, sex trafficking and exploitation is incredibly profitable. As a result, rising economic inequality has pushed many Mexicans towards this industry.

Many people within Mexico have had no choice but to turn to these alternate industries to survive. This is due to a lack of opportunity. As a result, human trafficking has grown within Mexico, with 21,000 minors falling victim to this horrid industry. This problem is not an isolated one. According to the Human Rights Watch, as a result of this industry, Mexico has become one of the largest sources of human trafficking in cases in the U.S. Simply put, rising poverty rates are only fueling a major threat to the U.S. They hurt women and children alike in one of the world’s most horrid illicit industries. Action needs to be taken in order to curb the rising poverty rates in Mexico that have been paramount in causing this crisis.

Mexico has always been a critical economic and geopolitical ally to the U.S. However, as it falls into a growing poverty crisis, the U.S. cannot turn a blind eye. Luckily, positive progress is being seen. Countless organizations such as Freedom from Hunger, Un Techo para mi País (TECHO) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) have all been working to mitigate the crisis. In 2018, the U.S. also pledged $4.6 billion to bolster development in Southern Mexico. By continuing on this path and pushing for even more developmental assistance in the future, we cannot only effectively curb the growing poverty crisis. Instead, we can also provide a more secure America for generations to come.


Andy Shufer

Photo: Flickr