MEXICO CITY – It was a signature achievement by the government that took over Mexico five years ago: educational reforms aimed at improving schools, rooting out incompetent teachers and breaking the grip of unions on hiring and firing them.
Now the man favored to win the presidency July 1 is vowing to scrap them and start over.
The education reforms — including teacher testing and merit-based hiring — were hailed by many as a step toward raising student and teacher performance and criticized by others as failing to address the root problems of underfunded schools in poor rural hamlets. They still have not been fully implemented.
But leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who holds a commanding lead in polls, says at every opportunity that he will cancel them, then pull together teachers, parents and experts to reach a new consensus.
Lopez Obrador would not be the first new president to put his own stamp on Mexico's education policy and its historically underperforming public schools.
A report published this month by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue said that in Mexico and other Latin American countries, "education policy planning remains a primarily political activity, rather than one informed by long-term strategic thinking and clear vision based on technical expertise."
Mexican students score below average in language, math and science. Most who can afford to do so put their children in private schools.
In a statement this month, current Education Secretary Otto Granados Roldan said that the reforms should not be discarded because they were improving teacher quality and their impacts should be thoroughly studied before making changes.
There is one clear political advantage to Lopez Obrador's position. It might pacify the many teachers who were enraged by measures designed to professionalize them — though it risks alienating voters weary of the teachers' unions' disruptive protests.
Teachers were supposed to take tests and then undergo training to remedy weaknesses. The reform aimed to bring merit-based hiring, breaking the unions' hold on hirings, firings and promotions. It eliminated common practices such as selling teaching positions or passing them down through families.
The main national union agreed to the reforms after its leader was jailed on corruption charges, but dissident teachers mobilized, especially in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. They argue the teacher test can't take into account the diverse conditions teachers face across the country.
They have turned scenic city plazas into campgrounds, blocked highways, bus stations and airports and repeatedly marched through downtown Mexico City. In places such as Oaxaca, prolonged teacher strikes have become an annual occurrence, regularly paralyzing schools for weeks at a time. Some protests have evolved into deadly clashes with police.
Some teachers — like the radical Section 22 of the dissident union in Oaxaca — argue that the reforms are at their core a union busting measure and say that using test results to justify firings violates their labor rights.
Lopez Obrador has seized on their anger and promised his administration would end what he calls bullying by President Enrique Pena Nieto's government.
"They all accept the testing," Lopez Obrador said of teachers during the campaign's final debate this month. "What they don't want is for the evaluation to be a mechanism to repress, to punish, to humiliate the teacher." None of his rivals spoke of repealing the reforms.
Ricardo Anaya, the candidate of a right-left alliance currently in second position, said he opposed discarding the reforms, but criticized their implementation. Jose Antonio Meade, the ruling party's candidate, said tossing the reforms would mean "cancelling our children's future."
Marco Fernandez, a government professor at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education and a researcher at Mexico Evalua, a public policy think tank, identified problems in the implementation of the reforms in a report published in April. They included teachers not receiving the training that was supposed to follow the tests and no budget to pay the more experienced teachers to mentor new ones. He also faulted the current administration's lack of transparency with education data.
Still, he believes scrapping the reforms in midstream would be a mistake.
"This temptation of reinventing the education wheel every six years has been very damaging for the country," Fernandez said.
The man who Lopez Obrador has said would be his education secretary, Esteban Moctezuma Barragan, has been less adamant than the candidate about the reforms.
"Obviously the reform has a lot of problems to correct," Moctezuma said at a recent forum. But he added, "It has good things to keep." He said teacher evaluations should continue, but in a different form, and he praised the autonomy given to the institute meant to oversee testing.
Raul Romero Lara, who heads education research and development at the Iberoamerican University, said Moctezuma's approach likely foreshadows actual policy if Lopez Obrador wins. He said there has been a tremendous investment in the reforms and it would be good to await data that would allow them to be evaluated before making more changes.
Lopez Obrador can't act unilaterally. He would need the backing of Congress to repeal the education reforms and support from teachers for any new policy, Romero said. And some teachers still take an arm's-length view of him.
Lopez Obrador's support "is exactly why we know that he is the candidate who has had the courage to stand up to the government," said Miguel Angel Miramontes Macias, a third-grade teacher from the central state of Guanajuato who took part in a Mexico City protest march this month. But he added, "If Andres Manuel identifies with us, well he's welcome to, but it doesn't mean that the (union) is supporting his candidacy."