Opinion: Mexico, Brazil seek education reform

September 17, 2013


In simultaneous moves that went almost unnoticed in the rest of the world, Mexico and Brazil passed historic education reforms last week that, if carried out as planned, could help propel Latin America’s biggest countries to the First World in coming decades.

Granted, the new laws signed by Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff could be watered down at the state level, where they will have to be implemented. But they amount to the most important step on education by both countries in more than five decades.

Pena Nieto signed into law an education reform law on Sept. 10 that introduces nationwide teacher evaluations, increases classroom hours and significantly reduces the powers of the country’s powerful teacher unions.

Until now, under a 1963 law, Mexico’s 1.5 million-member National Teachers’ Union, SNTE, selected 50 percent of the country’s teachers, while the remaining 50 percent were appointed by the government.

This generated a corruption-ridden system in which many teachers were paid despite not showing up for work in years, and retiring teachers sold their lifelong jobs for as much as $10,000 to people without qualifications.

Under the new law, which has triggered violent protests by a dissident leftist teachers’ union, both aspiring and current teachers will have to go through a national evaluation test. Aspiring teachers will have two chances to pass it in order to be hired, while the 1.2 million existing teachers will have up to three opportunities to pass in order to be allowed to continue teaching or to be promoted.

Mexico’s education reform was passed in Congress after growing public discontent over the fact that Mexico consistently ranks last among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member-countries in the group’s standardized PISA tests for 15-year-old students.

One of Pena Nieto’s first moves after taking office was putting SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo behind bars on charges of embezzling $200 million in union funds. For the past 25 years, she had been one of the country’s most powerful political figures.

In Brazil, Rousseff signed into law on Sept. 9 a measure that will earmark 75 percent of the country’s huge oil revenues to education, and the remaining 25 percent to health services.

The Brazilian Congress had earlier approved the move amid street demonstrations by millions of people demanding a better education system, in which some protesters held signs saying, “We want less soccer, and more education.”

As a result of Brazil’s massive new oil discoveries, the new law is expected to inject an additional $33 billion to Brazil’s public education system over the next 10 years.

Unfortunately, several other Latin American countries, such as Venezuela and Argentina, have failed to invest their economic bonanzas of recent years in improving their education systems.

The quality of Venezuela’s public schools has fallen so much that private schools there are booming. While the number of children in Venezuela’s public schools has dropped from 2.9 million to 2.8 million over the past 10 years, the number of children in private schools has gone from 486,000 to 613,000, according to a study by the Andres Bello Catholic University of Venezuela.

Jeff Puryear, an education expert with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, says Mexico’s new education reform is “truly historic.” And Brazil’s new law earmarking oil revenues for education could have a big impact if the new funds are accompanied by teacher evaluations and greater teacher accountability, he says.

“Implementation is everything,” Puryear told me. “But both Mexico and Brazil’s moves are a big step forward.”

My opinion: I agree that it will all depend on how the reforms will be implemented, but the good news is that there has been an escalating people’s revolt in both in Mexico and Brazil demanding better quality education systems.

There is a growing public awareness in the two countries that Latin America ranks at the bottom of standardized international student tests such as the PISA exam. And people are increasingly mindful that in today’s global economy, quality education — rather than natural resources, or manual labor — is what makes countries, and people, richer.

Now the key question is whether the Mexican and Brazilian people will keep up the pressure on their governments to improve the quality of their educational systems, because politicians will only enforce rules that are opposed by teachers unions if they feel social pressure to do so. Mexico and Brazil’s new education laws are historic, but the battle to achieve world-class education systems is just beginning.

— Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for The Miami Herald.


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