-OpEd-

MEXICO CITY — The Mexican government's bid to reform the country's underperforming public education sector is failing. On the one hand, there's determination to push through reforms many say may not be practical. On the other, there's fierce opposition from teachers who fear losing their jobs.

In this tragic farce, the most important thing has been overlooked: giving Mexican children an opportunity to shape their own future. Education is not only important to improve Mexico's economic growth, it's also crucial for the full development of citizens.

The current educational system has been built solely to ensure the continued hegemony of trade unions. Since the 1920s, unions have monopolized the education sector, not with the aim of giving students equal opportunity to good schools, but in order to have political control.

The actions of the National Coordinator of Education Workers — or CNTE, the more radical of the two main teachers unions — in recent months follow the sort of martial strategy philosopher Sun Tzu might propose: Strike your enemy where it hurts the most and where he least expects it.

The CNTE emerged from a split in Mexico's main union, the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) but soon began to pursue the same goals as the group they left, albeit by different means. Both unions were complementary to each other, often playing a good cop/bad cop routine in discussions with the government. The SNTE often blackmailed the administration, citing the threat of CNTE, and both unions won some concession when either group confronted the government.

In Mexico City — Photo: Alejandro Ayala/Xinhua/ZUMA

The arrest in 2013 of SNTE's powerful — and wealthy — chief, Elba Esther Gordillo, could not have happened at a worse time. While the government feared Gordillo's opposition to reforms, decapitating SNTE turned the CNTE into a powerful stakeholder in negotiations about the education sector.

CNTE became particularly influential in the central Mexican state of Oaxaca, where control of the educational authority allowed it to extort large sums of money from the federal government. The administration has now cut off that source of power but the union remains strong because many Oaxaca teachers support it.

While many teachers take part in marches and road blocks because the union forces them to do so, many others do it out of conviction. Why? Teachers are afraid of losing their jobs because the reforms call for evaluation tests that they may fail.

In addition to the power of the unions, the education system itself is flawed. Usually, anyone who wants to be a teacher has to gather a small fortune to buy a place, which is, in effect, a kind of savings that is cashed in when the teacher retires and can sell it to someone else. Moreover, a teaching position ensures the teacher an income for life. Both the CNTE and SNTE want to keep this arrangement as it allows them to control union members.

The current education reforms want to redefine the relationship between unions and the education ministry as the basis for more far-reaching reforms down the line in the sector. In that sense, it is all stick and no carrot because it offers nothing to those expected to abandon their lifelong economic security, which the traditional system ensured. People who bought their teaching posts years ago are seeing their retirement threatened, and those who suspect they may not be good teachers fear failing the evaluation tests and losing their jobs. The reforms offer no proposals to placate these fears.

Politicians themselves are undermining these reforms by bickering about presidential succession. As officials insist on fully implementing these reforms that critics say are unfeasible, opportunistic politicians are eyeing the possibility of tailoring these reforms in order to brighten their own electoral prospects.

The government has been clumsy handling the concerns of union members and teachers and this attitude has further fueled protests. It's possible now that protests against reforms will spread beyond education to other sectors.

As for schoolchildren, does anyone care what happens to them?