February 20, 2009

Protesting Mexico’s No Child Left Behind

By Berenice Reyes, Zacarias Cervantes and Karina Contreras.

Frontera NorteSur

In many respects, Mexico’s Alliance for Educational Quality (ACE) could be compared with the United States’ No Child Left Behind law. Like No Child Left Behind, ACE proposes raising the professional bar of teachers and the learning expectations of students. And like the fiercely-debated legislation north of the border, ACE is generating tons of controversy in Mexico.

For starters, Mexican teachers affiliated with the National Coordinator of Education Workers (CNTE) are intensifying protests against ACE. At a recent meeting, teachers from Baja California, Mexico City, Michoacan, and other states agreed to demonstrate outside the Mexican Senate March 5 in an effort to block constitutional modifications that would institutionalize ACE and, according to critics, make teaching to the test more of the norm inside classrooms.

Although controversial national teachers’ union leader Elba Esther Gordillo and the Calderon administration are backing ACE, many rank-amd-file educators say the proposed reforms would further pry open the door to the privatization of education, which has been on the upswing in recent years, and legally recognize “voluntary” contributions and other fees routinely asked of parents to help support a struggling, underfunded education system.

Jorge Garcia Hernandez, a member of the political commission of the CETEG teacher group in the state of Guerrero, maintained teachers are not against “quality in education,” but he disqualified ACE as a “neo-liberal” project that amounts to an assault on the free, lay basic education guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution.

Gordillo and her allies view education as “an opportunity and not a right, a right which was legitimately gained by long and broad struggles that come from the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras,” Garcia said in an interview with Frontera NorteSur.

On February 16, Garcia and several thousand other teachers and supporters held a protest march along Acapulco’s Costera main drag in opposition to ACE and changes made two years ago to Mexico’s ISSSTE social security system.

Garcia blasted the ISSSTE reforms for extending teacher retirement eligibility requirements as well as slashing guaranteed pension benefits from 4 to 2.5 minimum wage salaries, or from about $15 to less than $10 daily. If allowed to stand, the ISSSTE reform will leave retired teachers in the “beggar house,” Garcia contended.

Locally, the Acapulco march was convened to protest lack of progress in an agreement reached last fall between CETEG and the administration of Guerrero Governor Zeferino Torreblanca Galindo. According to Garcia, the two sides agreed to suspend the implementation of ACE in Guerrero while making sure recent teacher college graduates got jobs.

In response to this week’s protest, Torreblanca said teachers’ demands are unfulfilled “not because of lack of will, but because of lack of money.”

In reference to the massive traffic tie-up on the Costera resulting from Monday’s march, Torreblanca appealed to teachers to respect the rights of others who are not part of demonstrations.

For the moment, teachers have called a time-out on their demonstrations but could resume protests if expected negotiations with the state government do not bear fruit. A sticking point could be teacher demands that Guerrero State Education Secretary Jose Luis Gonzalez step down from his post.

The Acapulco march was supported by other social movements, including a group of residents from Puerto Marquez near Acapulco. The group is locked in a land-dispute over a zone that could be a prime tourist development in the future. The residents’ leader, Daniel Morales, was jailed last November on charges connected to the conflict. He remains in a prison outside Acapulco.

“We are in the same circumstances of government officials trying to affect (people),” said Puerto Marquez spokesman Carlos Salgado. “We stand in solidarity with (teachers).”

Conversely, an important segment of Mexican society rejects teacher protests against ACE and other government policies. An Acapulco taxi driver, who ironically works in an economic sector which is well-known for blocking roads to press its demands, expressed outrage at sight of the teachers blocking the Costera.

In a verbal exchange that illustrated prevailing social divisions, the driver called teachers “lazybones” while the educators called the cabbie a “pirate.”

Watching the march from the sidelines, Acapulco resident Jorge Olivar also criticized the teachers. Contending teachers are “first-class” workers who have privileged benefits like three-month bonuses that he and other workers do not enjoy, Olivar said he saw no good reason for teachers to be out on the streets. “The government is giving them a fair shake,” the hotel industry worker insisted.

Nationally, the recent comments of a Chihuahua senator have stirred more controversy. Senator Maria Teresa Ortuno proposed that Mexican soldiers be used as substitute teachers so students don’t miss class time in the event of a work stoppage.

“The important priority should be the one who is getting educated, not the educated one,” Senator Ortuno affirmed.

CETEG’s Jorge Garcia dismissed the senator’s remarks as hailing from the “hard-core reactionary sector of the National Action Party that governs our country.” Using soldiers as strike-breakers would only lead to “bigger confrontations,” Garcia warned.

In today’s Mexico, teachers constitute the best-organized, militant section of the working-class. The repression of a 2006 teacher strike in Oaxaca led to a popular uprising that was suppressed by federal forces.

According to Garcia, the anti-ACE movement is preparing an alternative education plan. CETEG and its allies plan to gather teachers, academics, parents, housewives and others in Acapulco next June to draft an educational reform proposal that comes “from below and not from above,” Garcia added.

Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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