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The CNTE’S Battle for Education

The Coordinadora Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE) has been consistently disrupting the normal, foul functioning of Mexican politics, with the Local 22 from Oaxaca taking the lead. The CNTE is a dissident union that broke off from the corrupt Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), whose ex-leader, Esther Gordillo, is in jail. They have been occupying, striking, and struggling against the education reforms that do little to address the severe inequality and structural deficiencies in Mexico’s education system. Those reforms are part of Enrique Peña Nieto’s “Pacto por México”, which continues the decades long attack on the Mexican working class and labor organizing.

That assault has occurred primarily through legislation, but also through direct repression of dissent by Mexican security forces. The recent assault by the Policía Federal on teachers protesting in Oaxaca, with several dead and multiple injured, along with the arrest of CNTE leaders, demonstrate the Mexican government’s willingness to repress through any means necessary, even torture and assassination. These events lead to Paco Ignacio Taibo II’s question; who gave the order?

What is at stake in this pitched battle between the CNTE and Mexican government is the fulfilment of Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution. Under Article 3 of the Mexican Constitution, all Mexican citizens have the right to an education up to the high school level enforced by mandatory attendance. It also stipulates that education must be supplied by the government, whether it is federal, state, or local level government.
The present reforms to Article 3 are based on privatization of Mexico’s education system and breaking union power, a direct attack on teachers and students. The reform utilizes Article 3’s first paragraph mandating the State’s guaranty of quality education to enact a teacher evaluation system, which will “demonstrate” compliance or non-compliance. The reform is also retroactive, stating that “all income and promotions will be null that were not given in conformity with the law.”

However, the arguments put forward defending this evaluation system follow the US’s neoliberal, corporate-driven model. They are the same, tired formula of standardized testing and union busting implemented in Gringolandia through policies like No Child Left and Race to the Top under the guise of “accountability” and “teacher performance”. Chicago public school teachers have been in the streets fighting the same reforms and cuts!

Primarily, the reforms are targeted against the unions by seeking to undermine their collective bargaining power through atomization and control. EPN’s reforms are based on what his administration consider failures related to the provision of education. In a document submitted to the Mexican Congress, the reforms are stated to be based on what EPN considers “undeniable”, that “teacher performance is the most relevant factor in learning”.

Yet, this ignores the lack of resources, especially in rural, indigenous areas of Mexico. This lack is so extreme in some instances, that teachers themselves have built schools with only the resources they had available. Only with public investment did improvements come. According to the OECD, in 2012 Mexican public education graduated about 70% of students at 15 years old, up from 58% in 2003. After that, it is estimated 49% of the population will receive an upper secondary education, up from the estimated 33% in 2000. From the year 2000 to 2011, enrollments of 4 year olds have gone from 70% to almost 100%. From this perspective, México’s education system has been improving in terms of access and graduation rates without EPN’s reforms.

Much of this can be traced to increased investment in public education, where from 1995 to 2005 spending on education went from 5.6% to 6.5% of GDP. Amazingly, if you invest money in something, it appears to do better; a truism. Public investment has gone down in recent years to 6.2% of GDP, similar to the OECD average of 6.3%. That trend of Federal de-investment will continue under the reforms. From 2012 to 2013, during Peña Nieto’s first year in office, federal public investment in education saw a 2.2% decrease.

In terms of average annual expenditure per student as part of per capita GDP, México is well below OECD average of 28%, sitting at 20%. Per student México spends a lot less than other countries, typically less than half the OECD average. This translates into worse teacher-student ratios. OECD average is 14 to 15 students per teacher, in México it is 25 to 30 students per teacher depending on the level (pre-primary, primary, secondary). And while being decried as lazy in Mexico’s corporate media outlets, like Televisa, México’s teachers work longer hours than other OECD countries. By fallaciously attacking the teachers, the government hopes to collapse wages a large part of educational expenditure and continue the drive to privatization through de-investment.

The CNTE has been supported by MORENA, but largely they’ve relied on the support of civil society to advance their struggle. In this way, they’ve followed a Zapatista-style path that seeks to leverage national and international solidarity networks and their power to force the government to negotiate. Part of that political strategy relies on protecting the decolonial advances in education. The education reforms are an attack on indigenous cosmologies that involve comunalidad and intercultarildad, that do not follow the instrumental reason of a quantified, capitalist society. These politico-cultural concepts of living in common and pluri-ethnic consciousness are part of a democratic seed that the Mexican government and transnational capital want to suffocate.

EPN’s government, the Secretary of Public Education, Aurelio Nuño Mayer, and the Secretary of the Interior, Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, have repeatedly stated they will not negotiate about the reforms. The Policía Federal have evicted the CNTE occupiers from their encampment in Mexico City, with the teachers returning and restarting the resistance. The corporate media demonizes them, and the middle class blames them. But, these teachers are the brave, defending the right to know. The simmering conflict in Mexico burns stronger again. Will change come…

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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