Over the past several weeks, national education reform has become a sizzling topic of debate in Mexico. The debate climaxed with the February arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo, former head of Mexico's national teachers' union, on allegations of embezzlement. Gordillo's arrest is like a telenovela and an irresistible spectacle: the sums of money she is accused of stealing are staggering, as is the gawdiness of the items she acquired with it. There are even websites that will show you the California mansions and retail credit card bills she allegedly acquired over the years at the expense of Mexican students.
It is no surprise that Gordillo's arrest has drawn cyber-gawkers from both sides of the border, many of whom wonder whether or not Mexico finally "means business" when it comes to fighting corruption. Whether or not Mexico means business is especially important in the education context, because education is Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto's first policy issue in his term after being elected last November. His victory also marks the return of the previously entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party after a 12-year hiatus at the hands of the National Action Party. How Mexico reforms education can signal either a reversion to pre-2000 politics or, perhaps, a heartening stride away from corruption.
By looking at the law behind the reforms, it seems that the same politics that defined Mexico during the last century have returned. Specifically, a key piece of quasi-legislation called the Pacto Por México may give us a sense of the overall contours of education reform, and the seriousness of the new president's resolve. The pacto is important politically because it was Nieto's presidential platform. Its legal significance is even more important, considering that the document will form the legal basis and roadmap for changes to make reform. The drafters of the pacto moreover, assert that this document is itself a constitutional reform designed to bring equity and quality to Mexico's private and public schools.
The pacto's section on education calls for the following initiatives, among others:
- A centralized database of school, student and administrator information to "facilitate monitoring and communication" between education authorities schools. (Compromiso 7)
- Plenary authority to the National Education Evaluation Institute, which will implement comprehensive criteria for evaluating school progress and teacher standards. (Compromiso 8)
- Independent, decentralized (charter-like) governance over local schools. (Compromiso 9)
- An increase in the hours of the school day to "full time" (rather than the reigning model of two half-day sessions). (Compromiso 10)
- Laptops with wireless internet capability for all of the nation's fifth and sixth graders. (Compromiso 11)
- A national scholarship program that will provide a work-study program for the nation's lowest 40 percent income range of students in middle and high school. (Compromiso 15)
Critique of Education Provision in Pact
Just from this handful of provisions, it's apparent that education reform is unlikely in Mexico. For starters, the document sends mixed signals about the ultimate authority on education. On one hand, the provisions on governance signal a shift from micromanagement to one of independence and local discretion. At the same time, however, the pacto also contains conditions. These sorts of inconsistencies create confusion for the educator and the lawmaker alike. Another problem is the absence of any explanation as to the source or logic of these ideas. Borrowing language from constitutional and administrative law, it seems there is no rational basis to any of these provisions. This is an invitation for slow, arbitrary and capricious policy, and in the Mexican context, an open door for more corruption.
Perhaps most emblematic of this problem is the pacto's set of technology-heavy solutions. Why is it that fifth and sixth graders get these technologies, and yet no provisions of this type are made for students in other levels? Technology may be a good thing. In fact, Rupert Murdoch endorsed this approach in a recent editorial on the Steve Jobs Approach to Education Reform. The point is, however, that it's hard to ignore the attendant problems that can come with such an outsourcing of education to technology. Most problematic of all is how little the education provisions do in the way of prescribing how to create the critical infrastructure they prescribe. Where will the funds come from, for example, to endow the scholarship and work-study programs? How will it work? These sorts of questions will take many years and political battles to resolve, which will only stand in the way of a meaningful reform.
General Critique of the Pact
As a general matter, the pacto itself suffers from many of the same problems of scope, framing and vagueness as its education provisions. Its scope is overly ambitious. In addition to education, the document calls for sweeping reform in four other areas: employment and economic development, security and justice, transparency and corruption control and democratic governance. If successful then, this pacto would do just about as much as the New Deal, the Warren Court and Obama's second administration combined, in terms of changing the socio-legal and administrative landscape in Mexico. And this is all in a country with no real serious rule of law or toothy judiciary. Do we really believe in a document like this? Mexico's observers certainly do not. The pacto's education website attacks many valid critiques as "myths."
The pacto's overall framing is also troublesome for its reliance on malleable terms and conditions. Take for example, the compromiso language, which translates to a "promise," not a resolution or actual law. Sneaky framing negatively affects education in particular. For example, in section V of the pacto, which contains a table summary of all the education provisions, all but two of the compromisos are conditioned on the full implementation of the educational reforms on approval of the Reforma Hacendaria a reform of Mexico's revenue law. Not only then are the pacto's ideas lofty, ill-defined and arguably unattainable, they are also presented as a rotten carrot to bait the passage of other reforms in unrelated fields such as revenue and telecom.
All in all, it seems the pacto is a reform not of law, but rather of the use of social media and political theater. The pacto has also been touted as a roadmap for economic progress, and that it very well may be. A harbinger and roadmap for education reform however, it definitely is not.
As a budding lawyer of Mexican heritage, I truly want to believe that things like Gordillo's arrest and the Pacto por México signal Mexico's decided and long-awaited clamp-down on corruption. But the reality might be just the opposite. I will stay tuned and so should you for more from the legal drama unfolding in Mexico.
Felipe Alberto Herrera was a Fulbright Scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science where he studied law, anthropology and society. He has since worked in areas of public finance and immigration services.
Suggested citation: Felipe Alberto Herrera, The Laws Driving Mexico's "Educational Reform" are Troubled From the Outset, JURIST - Dateline, Apr. 16, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/04/felipe-herrera-education-reform.php
This article was prepared for publication by Emily Osgood, an associate editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org