No Child Left Behind, Mexican-Style

“No Child Left Behind”, the tarnished crown jewel of the outgoing Bush regime’s education program so maladroitly administered by lame duck Ed Secretary Margaret Spellings, is being huckstered throughout Latin America as a model for privatizing education – despite the grumblings of conscientious U.S. public school teachers who suffer NCLB’s depredations in the land of its birth.

According to published news reports, 30% of all U.S. schools are failing required NCLB test scores and the entire California public school system is on track to flunk “No Child Left Behind” goals by the program’s 2014 end date.

Pinned to batteries of standardized tests, teachers complain that NCLB promotes the robotization of students who must score high to keep government moneys flowing to their school districts. Grassroots educators throughout the country remonstrate with school officials, speak out at union meetings, and write letters to their congressional representatives in an effort to get the program scrapped.

Public school teachers south of the border are not quite so polite about their opposition to the Mexican spin-off of No Child Left Behind, the Alliance for Quality Education or ACE.
Since the start up of the school term in late August, the “maestros” of Section 19 of the National Education Workers Union (SNTE) have shut down schools, highways, and whole cities in Morelos state just south of Mexico City where the revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata once rose in rebellion.
Their beef? The ACE program, cooked up by President Felipe Calderon and SNTE Czarina-for-life Elba Esther Gordillo and a knock-off of the NCLB boondoggle is a backdoor scheme to privatize primary education in Mexico – superior and secondary education, with notable exceptions like the National Autonomous University (UNAM), have been virtually turned over to fly-by-night private preparatory schools and colleges, many of them affiliates of U.S. educational franchises.

Like No Child Left Behind, the ACE also provides for vouchers so that parents can opt out of public educational systems and enroll their kids in private schools. Moreover, the ACE seeks to phase out Normal schools where rural youths are trained as maestros to serve their own communities. The “Normales” are traditionally hotbeds of radical dissent and striking teachers charge that the ACE has been designed by Gordillo and Calderon to weed out dissidents.

The 60-day standoff between rightist PAN Party Governor Marco Adame’s security forces and Section 19 has escalated as frustrations mount. While Adame, reputedly a member of the ultra right-wing secret El Yunque clique inside the PAN, seeks to convince citizens that the teachers are only interested in buying and selling jobs, an endemic condition in the corruption-ridden Gordillo-run union, strikers have been rallying parents and taking to the streets. An October 14th march drew 40,000 militants to the state capital of Cuernavaca.

In recent weeks, bloody confrontations between teachers and their supporters and state and federal police and military have resulted in hundreds of wounded protestors but, fortunately, no deaths as yet. According to Section 19 leaders, 240 activists have been arrested in this on-going resistance. The skirmishing around the largely indigenous towns of Huitzilac, Amayuca, and Xoxocotla has been intense with heavily armed troops forcibly unblocking highways, spraying tear gas from helicopters, and invading homes without arrest warrants to drag off parents who support the teachers. In Xoxocotla, one young father who had just come in from tilling his fields was arrested, beaten, and forced to walk on hot coals and glass.

Human rights organizations decry the criminalization of social protest in Morelos, so reminiscent of the 2006 federal and state attack on the farmers of San Salvador Atenco and Oaxaca governor Ulysis Ruiz’s brutal repression of striking teachers and the APPO (Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly) that took the lives of 26 protestors in that southern state.

Despite the maestros’ efforts, a third of the state’s schools remain open – although the only teachers on hand are television sets and scabs sent in by Gordillo and Adame. As the strike enters its third month, emotions are running high. In the Nahuat-speaking village of Nepopualco when strikers sought to bar scabs from a local school, the Indians, inflamed by the governor’s incendiary rhetoric, became so enraged they tried to lynch the protestors. The village priest had to step in to spare their lives.

“In the state of Morelos,” one striker who refused to identify herself for fear of retaliation told La Jornada correspondent Blanche Petrich, “it has become a crime to be a teacher.”

After 20 years at the helm of the SNTE, Elba Esther Gordillo AKA “La Maestra” or “La Ticher”, continues to exert absolute control over the union, the largest labor organization in Latin America with 13 million members, through a combination of brute force – “golpeadores” or hitters who keep dissidents in line – and outright bribery. In early October, La Maestra set the tone at a meeting of the SNTE hierarchy in Hermosillo Sonora when she gifted section leaders with 59 Hummer H-3s – at $43,000 USD each, the price tag ran $2.5 million looted from union members’ dues.

At first insisting the Hummers were to be used to travel to far-flung schools, Elba Esther changed her story when her explanation was met with widespread disbelief. Instead, she told La Jornada, the Hummers would be raffled off to raise funds for downtrodden schools. Synchronistically, during the October 9th attack in Xoxocotla, robocops drove through the village hurling tear gas canisters from Hummers.

In 2007, Gordillo, who has headed the SNTE for 20 years, was elected “leader for life” of the gargantuan union, which includes all of the nation’s educational personnel from janitors to administrators. Born in the boonies of the deep south state of Chiapas, the diminutive Maestra scratched her way through the SNTE bureaucracy to head up the Mexico state section, the largest and most powerful in the country, where she purged dissidents grouped together in the National Coordinating Body of Education Workers or CNTE – the dissidents accuse Gordillo of masterminding the 1982 murder of CNTE founder Misael Nunez.

Gordillo’s SNTE is split into 59 sections, sometimes two to each of Mexico’s 31 states and the federal district. When a section proves troublesome, such as Oaxaca’s 22 which rejects national leadership, La Maestra retaliates by chartering an alternative section.

Section 9, which organizes primary school teachers in Mexico City, has been a thorn in the side of entrenched SNTE leadership for 50 years. Back in the mid-1950s, Othon Salazar, a communist activist and Mixtec Indian maestro, organized the Revolutionary Teachers Movement out of Section 9, mobilizing urban and rural “profes” (for professors) throughout the country to march on Mexico City and confront the union’s corrupt leadership. As payback, Salazar was imprisoned for years and his union membership card yanked. Now, nearing 100 years old, Salazar is suing the SNTE to be reinstated. “I have never seen a leader of this union more disposed to sell out public education to private interests than Elba Esther Gordillo,” Maestro Salazar recently told Proceso magazine.

Because Othon Salazar’s spirit lingers at Section 9 headquarters, Gordillo seeks to split the teachers and take the old building in the city’s historic quarter back. In July, La Maestra scheduled secret elections in a private garage in Coyoacan in southern Mexico City. When rank and filers broke in to close down the sham vote, they were attacked by Gordillo’s goons. One recent morning, when members arrived at Section 9’s headquarters on Belisaurio Dominguez Street and found the front door soldered shut, they set about breaking in with sledgehammers to get to their offices. “I’m imagining this is La Maestra’s head,” one Section 9 worker joked to this reporter as he slammed his sledgehammer against the building’s walls.

The SNTE has been historically ruled by a union boss closely affiliated with the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) since its founding during the Mexican revolution (1910-1919.) Manuel Sanchez Vite was dispatched after 30 years in power in 1959 when he ran afoul of President Adolfo Lopez Mateos and was replaced by his rival Carlos Junguitud. 30 years later, in 1989, Junguitud had a falling out with another president, Carlos Salinas, who installed Elba Esther as “cacique” (political boss) of the SNTE.

Aside from her educational career, La Maestra has achieved a rare measure of political prominence. A leader in the PRI by virtue of her control over millions of education workers, Gordilo became secretary general of the party in 2000 but her ambition for power provoked PRI president Roberto Madrazo who engineered her ouster.

Thirsting for vengeance, La Ticher volunteered her services to Mexico’s new right-wing president Vicente Fox, the nation’s first non-PRI chief executive and a member of the rightist PAN. Gordillo soon became bosom buddies with Fox and his shrill activist wife Martita who bestowed unusual political favors upon La Maestra. She was allowed to register her own vanity political party, the National Alliance or PANAL, to steal votes from the hated PRI and the left-wing PRD, and was given carte blanche to appoint surrogates to the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), including its president Luis Carlos Ugalde who was charged with organizing the 2006 presidential election in which Fox’s successor Felipe Calderon took on the despised Madrazo and leftist firebrand Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO.)

Election Day 2006 was a busy day for La Maestra. Her “profes”, master “mapaches” (raccoons or electoral flimflammers) sabotaged voting booths all over the country, stuffing ballot boxes and altering tally sheets when they favored the frontrunner Lopez Obrador. As proof of her influence on the IFE, Gordillo reportedly had 22,000 polling place officials replaced by her loyalists in the weeks before the election to guarantee a Calderon victory. Her election day phone calls to PRI governors to convince them to throw their weight to the PANista (one was surreptitiously recorded) were thought to be key in clinching Calderon’s much questioned “victory.”

Although Felipe Calderon owes his presidency to La Maestra, he turned back her bid to be his education secretary, choosing instead PAN loyalist Josefina Vazquez Mota and detonating an on-going rift between the two powerful women. As compensation for the snub, Gordillo’s son-in-law was appointed sub-Secretary of Primary Education and her protégé Miguel Angel Yunes now heads the ISSTE Institute of Social Security that oversees health services and pensions for all federal employees.

Rejection of Gordillo’s ACE has not been limited to Section 19. Demonstrations against this Mexican version of No Child Left Behind have spread to 12 states and are continuing. Tens of thousands of maestros from seven sections marched on Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, to demand the demise of the ACE this past October 17th. The next day, members of Section 9 burned a huge “Judas” head of La Maestra near her home in the swank Polanco section of Mexico City

Writing in La Jornada, Luis Hernandez Navarro, an historian of dissident teachers movements, critiqued the No Child Left Behind model as inappropriate in Mexico where the battle to defend public education is a pillar of social struggle. “Those who defend the ACE are copying policies that do not make for quality education in the United States. (Calderon and Gordillo) are trying to sell our system of public education to the highest bidder.”

Added dissident teacher Pedro Echeverria as he set out on the 13 kilometer march from Mexico City’s Zocalo to Los Pinos last Friday: “Maybe we ought to send Gordillo and Calderon back to school to learn our history…”

JOHN ROSS is wrestling with “El Monstruo” in the maw of Mexico City.  These dispatches will continue at 10-day intervals until the draft is done.  If you have further information visit www.johnross-rebeljournalist.com or johnross@igc.org


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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org

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