Last month, the success of the Chicago teachers’ strike forced the mainstream media to present a rare picture of public school teachers: as organized, defiant and victorious. But prior to the Chicago teachers winning a major deal, there was no shortage of dismissive, condescending and misleading coverage of teachers unions.
Recently, that disdainful media gaze has turned southward. Various outlets–public radio, USA Today, McClatchy, the Economist and Washington Post–have depicted the Mexican teachers union as a sinister force in the national struggle over public education policy. The reports generally focus on Mexico’s poor academic performance in international rankings and zero in on the “boss” of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, who is cartoonishly portrayed as an authoritarian collector of fancy handbags.
A June Washington Post report on Mexico’s crumbling schools, published on the eve of a landmark national election, said, “Twenty percent of the country’s budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries–negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.” The piece quotes education scholar Carlos Ornelos of the Autonomous Metropolitan University about the alleged black market in teaching jobs: “The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.” Yikes.
The source Ornelos cites, Mexicanos Primero, is a think tank that seems to closely align its politics (and name) with high-power U.S. reform groups like Students First. In the vein of “Won’t Back Down”, Mexicanos Primero has sponsored its own cinematic screed on teachers, “¡de Panzazo!” (“barely passing”), depicting corruption and incompetence throughout Mexico’s education system.
Both ¡de Panzazo!’s claims and the American press’s disdain for Mexico’s teachers show only one sliver of a complex, often misrepresented political context. Yes, there is documented evidence of rampant corruption as well as [certain] persistent cronyistic practices in the Mexican teachers union, such as reserving teaching positions for family members. But that’s not the whole story.
In both Mexico and the United States, schools are an ideological battleground. Corporate-minded school-reform groups such as Mexicanos Primero and Students First promote curbing teachers’ unions, tiering their pay schemes, and running schools more like businesses in an educational “marketplace.”
To suggest that unions are primarily driving Mexico’s educational challenges is to echo the corporate reformers in the U.S. that pit “unions” against “reform”. This myopic mentality misses the fact that educational policy reflects the priorities of the political class while silencing communities and thus masking the underlying crises that affect educational achievement.
In fact, rank-and-file teachers are often at the helm of movements for real educational equity. Dissident members of SNTE, known as Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (CNTE), have actively challenged authoritarian union officials, and at the same time resisted hardline reforms they see as corrosive to a democratic, broad-based education. They’ve alsomobilized against sweeping new neoliberal labor legislation.
Reporting on teacher protests last year in Oaxaca (the site of a mass uprising in 2006) Dan LaBotz noted that the dissident educators demonstrated not only against education authorities’ plans to impose a controversial national exam system, but also against Gordillo’s rule: [cont’d.]