Jimmy Hoffa In A Dress: Union Boss's Stranglehold On Mexican Education Creates Immigration Fallout
During a five-day visit to the United States in February 2008, Mexican President Felipe Calderón lectured Washington on immigration reforms that should be accomplished. No doubt he will reprise this performance when he meets with President George W. Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in New Orleans for the annual North American Leaders Summit on April 20-21, 2008. At a speech before the California State Legislature in Sacramento, the visiting head-of-state vowed that he was working to create jobs in Mexico and tighten border security. He conceded that illegal immigration costs Mexico "a great deal," describing the immigrants leaving the country as "our bravest, our youngest, and our strongest people." He insisted that Mexico was doing the United States a favor by sending its people abroad. "Americans benefit from immigration. The immigrants complement this economy; they do not displace workers; they have a strong work ethic; and they contribute in taxes more money than they receive in social benefits."1 While wrong on the tax issue, he failed to address the immigrants’ low educational attainment. This constitutes not only a major barrier to assimilation should they seek to become American citizens, but also means that they have the wrong skills, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Ours is not the economy of the nineteenth century, when we needed strong backs to slash through forests, plough fields, lay rails, and excavate mines. The United States of the twenty-first century, which already abounds in low-skilled workers, requires men and women who can fill niches in a high-tech economy that must become more competitive in the global marketplace.Most newcomers from south of the Rio Grande have had access to an extremely low level of education, assuming they have even received instruction in basic subjects. Poverty constitutes an important factor in their condition, as well as the failure of lower-class families to emphasize education in contrast to, say, similarly situated Asian families. These elements aside, Mexico’s public schools are an abomination — to the point that the overwhelming majority of middle-class parents make whatever sacrifices are necessary to enroll their youngsters in private schools where the tuition may equal $11,000 to $12,000 annually.
The primary explanation for Mexico’s poor schools lies in the colonization of the public-education system by the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE, according to its initials in Spanish), a hugely corrupt 1.4 million-member organization headed by political powerhouse Elba Esther Gordillo Morales. Rather than lecture American lawmakers on what bills to pass, Calderón would do well to devote himself to eliminating this Herculean barrier to the advancement of his own people within their own country.
This Backgrounder will (1) examine Mexico’s educational levels, (2) discuss the enormous influence of the SNTE’s leader Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, (3) focus on corruption in the educational sector, and (4) indicate reforms that the administration of President Calderón should consider.I. Educational Levels
Mexico’s educational system teems with ugly facets, none more alarming than the high dropout rate. Roughly 10 percent of those who finish elementary school never complete middle school, either because their families cannot afford to send them, they drop out to earn money, or there is simply no room for them.2
"There is a bottleneck in the system," says Eduardo Vélez Bustillo, education specialist on Latin America at the World Bank. "Quality is bad at every level, but middle school is a crisis point because that’s where the demand is highest," he adds.3 Although Mexico has made significant strides in recent years by increasing overall enrollment and boosting investment in education, the country still trails other developed nations in most proficiency standards.
In 2006 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conducted its triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) among ninth-graders.4 As indicated in Tables 1, 2, and 3, Mexican students placed at the bottom in reading and mathematics among youngsters in the 30 OECD member nations. Of the 27 non-OECD countries assessed, Mexico fell below Chile, China (Taipei), Croatia, Estonia, Hong Kong, Israel, Romania, Russia, and Slovenia in three areas. Other measures, including student hours in class, show Mexico as an underachiever.
The elementary school day provides for only four hours of instruction in an outmoded curriculum that has been handed down from generation to generation and is zealously guarded by the change-averse SNTE. In lieu of creative approaches to stimulate students, teachers stress rote learning and harsh discipline as evinced in their mantra: "Be Quiet, Pay Attention, and Work in your own seat!"5 In indigenous areas, instructors sometimes use students to perform menial chores for them. This same ethos of submissiveness to strong, hierarchical control characterizes the teachers’ relationship to their union.6
Although the Mexican government could do more, its expenditure on education shot up 47 percent from 1995 to 2004. Spending per student rose only 30 percent because of expanding enrollments.7 Educational spending as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) exceeds the OECD average at 5.4 percent, including 26.8 percent of the federal discretionary budget. When private sector outlays are added, total educational spending came to 7.1 percent of GDP in 2006.8 In 2004 Mexico’s disbursements on education as a percentage of national income (6.4 percent) surpassed that of all other OECD nations with the exception of Denmark, Iceland, Korea, New Zealand, and the United States.9 Some 95 percent of expenditures are for teachers’ salaries. Inadequate resources have prompted the Ministry of Public Education (SEP) to seek funds from the private sector to rehabilitate 3,200 deteriorating schools.10
U.S. taxpayers pick up the bill for poorly educated Mexicans who cross into this country unlawfully. All told, federal, state, and local governments in 2004 spent $12 billion annually for primary and secondary education for children residing unlawfully in the five states with the most illegal immigrants.11
President Calderón’s secretary of public education, Josefina Vázquez Mota, has championed major reforms of her country’s schools. Gordillo loyalist and SNTE Secretary-General Rafael Ochoa Guzmán said that the PISA findings "affirm the diagnostics that sustain the SNTE’s proposal for a new educational model for Mexico in the XXI century and indicate how much we must do to achieve the objective of quality education that we have identified and upon which we are embarked."12 Such soaring rhetoric aside, Gordillo and Ochoa have mobilized their political allies to block changes, insisting that the real solution lies in pouring even more money into a failed system.II. SNTE and its Leader
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dominated Mexican politics for 71 years after its founding in 1929. The president bestrode the apex of an iron triangle: one side consisted of the PRI, which was synonymous with the government, and the other side depicted an economy dominated by the state. This authoritarian regime imposed top-down control through three sectors to which party members belonged according to their occupations: peasants, blue-collar union members, and public employees. Among public employees, the SNTE constituted the strongest force. After all, teachers, who are in classrooms from the U.S. border to the Guatemalan frontier, were often considered leaders in rural communities because of their superior education. In compliance with directives from their honcho, they worked assiduously on behalf of PRI candidates.
After Carlos Salinas de Gortari became president in late 1988, hundreds of thousands of angry, placard-waving teachers stormed into Mexico City’s zócalo central plaza, protesting the losses incurred during the previous years when educational expenditures fell 40 percent and teacher salaries plummeted by 50 percent.13 When SNTE Secretary-General Carlos Jonguitud Barrios, a former governor of the state of San Luis Potosí, could not restore order, the chief executive removed him. In his place, Salinas installed Gordillo, who has become known as "la Maestra" — a respectful term for a teacher. She showed no remorse at conniving to oust her mentor and patron. When asked about the transition, she said: "I am at peace with my past." The president gave Gordillo a fat and juicy bunch of carrots with which to mollify disgruntled union activists — namely, tens of millions of dollars (498 million pesos) to finance a Teachers’ Housing Fund (VIMA), which could buy land and construct apartments and homes for members of her profession. Ricardo Raphael de la Madrid, a political analyst who has written a book, Los socios de Elba Esther (The Partners of Elba Esther), claims that the president later directed deposits totaling 81.5 billion pesos into housing-related trusts for the union. He observes that an additional 10.82 billion pesos flowed to the labor colossus in the form of subsidies for its department stores, pharmacies, congresses, seminars, and union events. Years later, Gordillo allegedly ordered her ex-husband, Francisco Areola Urbina, to destroy or modify any documents that might flash red lights about the organization’s finances.
Born in 1945 in fly-specked Comitán, in the state of Chiapas, Gordillo remembers growing up amid poverty. In a Wall Street Journal interview, she said that her grandfather, who became rich running a distillery, fathered 41 of his 46 children out of wedlock. A machista tyrant, he disowned Gordillo’s mother Estela, when — against his wishes — she married a policeman. After her husband’s death, Estela lived from hand-to-mouth as a public school teacher.14
Gordillo herself was widowed at age 18 after donating a kidney to her dying spouse. She followed in her mother’s footsteps, teaching in the countryside and, later, in one of Mexico City’s poorest areas. As a teenager, she joined the SNTE and, as a stalwart in the Revolutionary Vanguard, a dissident current within the union, began excoriating Jonguitud for his corrupt and ineffective leadership.
Rather than lash out at this fiery, young upstart, Jonguitud invited her into his leadership circle and, reportedly, into his bed.15 This ensured Gordillo’s meteoric ascent through the ranks of her profession. Critics claim that with her intimate friend Jonguitud’s blessing, she won a disputed contest to head the SNTE in México State, the most populous of the country’s 31 states. Firebrands in the National Coordination of Educational Workers (CNTE), a radical anti-Gordillo rival that embraces one-fifth of the nation’s teachers, even allege that she orchestrated the assassination of one of her opponents, Misael Núñez Acosta — a charge that Gordillo vehemently denies.16
Soon after becoming the SNTE boss, Gordillo thwarted efforts by Education Secretary Manuel Bartlett Díaz to decentralize public education, modernize the curriculum, fortify the role of parents, and, in the process, weaken the union. Rather than rejecting this initiative outright, la Maestra came up with a Union Movement for the Modernization of the Educational System, which proved to be nothing more than a blueprint for preserving the status quo.17La Maestra rose in the PRI apace with her upward movement in the SNTE. Her political posts include three terms in the Chamber of Deputies (1979-82, 1985-88, 2003-06); one period in the Senate (1997-2003); a key operative in the her party’s fraud-ridden "victory" in the 1986 gubernatorial contest in Chihuahua when she served as Secretary of Organization of the National Executive Council (1986–1987); general secretary of the Council of National Popular Organizations (1997–2002); and secretary-general of the PRI (2002-2005). On July 13, 2006, two weeks after the federal elections, the PRI announced her expulsion from its ranks for having supported Calderón, the candidate of the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and for attacking and slandering the PRI’s leaders and candidates.
Gordillo stepped down as the SNTE’s secretary general in 1994 to become the "life-time president" ("presidenta vitalicia"). She also relishes the sobriquet as the union’s "moral leader." Regardless of her title, she has preserved her hammerlock on the union through handpicked lieutenants: Humberto Dávila Esquivel (1995-98), Tomás Vázquez Virgil (1998-2001), and Rafael Ochoa Guzmán (2001-present). Her wealth and power prompted scholar M. Delal Baer to refer to her as "Jimmy Hoffa in a dress" — a comparison with the deceased boss of the Teamsters International Union.18 Social scientist Jorge Zepeda Patterson has gone even further, calling her the "Darth Vader of Mexico."19
Opponents within the PRI forced her out of the party’s number-two position in 2005. At that point, she devoted herself to organizing a teacher-based New Alliance Party (PANAL), which fielded a presidential candidate and nominees for the Chamber of Deputies the following year. Although mentioning her intention to retire, Gordillo continues to flex her political and economic muscles thanks to several factors:
Corruption thrives in the SNTE, which has control over the hiring and firing of teachers. Among these venal, or at least highly questionable, practices are:
Education Secretary Vázquez Mota has called for root-and-branch changes in her country’s educational system. She supports regular and systematic evaluation of students and teachers, using merit to determine teachers’ salaries, enrolling more poor children, opening teaching jobs to competition, revising teaching methods, improving teacher-training institutions, introducing appropriate technology, ensuring the safety of students, involving parents in the education of their youngsters, and inviting the participation of the private-sector and the mass media in educational matters. She laid out her ambitious plans in Programa Sectorial de Educación: 2007-2012.37 For her part, Gordillo has pointedly questioned the competence of Vázquez Mota and urged "a dramatic reduction in the enormous cost of the SEP [education ministry] bureaucracy, which by any measure is inefficient and unproductive."38 Conclusion39
While giving lip-service to the same objectives,40 President Calderón has been loathe to cross swords with la Maestra because of the intense political problems that he faces with a Congress dominated by opposition parties. The chief executive also confronts continuous attacks from self-anointed "legitimate president" Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has gone on a rampage against proposals to invite private capital into the nation’s petroleum sector that has only 10 years of proven reserves remaining.
In February 2008, Congress approved a robust increase in teachers’ pay, but failed to require improved performance as a quid pro quo for higher salaries. Meanwhile, Gordillo had the temerity to request the Ministry of Public Education to pay the income tax for teachers — an amount exceeding $475.4 million.41
Amid newspaper attacks on union corruption and growing dissent among locals, Gordillo announced in early March 2008 that she would step down from her SNTE post because of the imperative to have an "orderly generational change in leadership."
She may have made this statement to assuage concerns within Calderón administration that it has become too close to la Maestra — a misgiving voiced by César Nava, now the president’s chief of staff, when he was his private secretary in a meeting with fellow PAN members.42 Her announcement notwithstanding, the SNTE bigwig neglected to state when she would step down, the means of selecting her successor, and whether she would endorse a dauphin.
One month later, she did an about-face, affirming that she would maintain her hold on the union’s reins for another four years. "I must die some day, but not when others wish it," she said.
The moral leader announced that her intention to "slim down" the organization’s bureaucracy by slashing the size of its National Executive Committee to 19 members. Although Gordillo touted this action as part of placing a "new face of modernity" on the SNTE, in fact she was tightening her grip on the union’s machinery.43
When la Maestra does step down, her daughter Maricurz Montelongo Gordillo, an ex-federal deputy who now represents the Nayarit state government in the capital, her husband SEP Undersecretary Fernando González, and Héctor "the Cashier" Hernández, longtime SNTE money man, have the inside track to succeed her.
Gordillo faces revolts from chiefs of several key locals. The leftist CNTE continually attacks her. At the same time, she has incurred the wrath of important elements of the principal political parties. If he can survive the knock-down-drag out battle over the petroleum issue, Calderón should muster any political capital that he has left to break the back of the SNTE and restore education to the Mexican people to whom its belongs. In so doing, he can improve chances for his citizens to find worthwhile employment in their own land.
End Notes1 Quoted in Victoria Waters, "Calderón pide ayuda en inmigración y comercio," February 14, 2008, Diario las Americas. http://www.pisa.oecd.org/ www.oecd.org/dataoecd/4/55/39313286.pdf http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0604/01/ldt.0.html
George W. Grayson who is the Class of 1938 Professor of Government at the College of William & Mary, is a member of the Center for Immigration Studies Board of Directors. He is also a senior associate at the Center for Strategic & International Studies and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He may be reached at email@example.com or (757) 221-3031. William & Mary student Gabriela Regina Arias helped edit and proof-read this essay.
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