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Geoff Johnson: Mexican teacher scandal is breathtaking

Those of us who enjoy occasional vacations on the beaches of Mexico watched the education news from Mexico City last week in awe.

Those of us who enjoy occasional vacations on the beaches of Mexico watched the education news from Mexico City last week in awe.

In a country where “La Mordida” (meaning the bite or the bribe) is a time-honoured way of doing business, Elba Esther Gordillo, the controversial president of Mexico’s influential 1.5-million member national teachers’ union, had apparently raised “La Mordida” to an art form.

Gordillo, one of Mexico’s most powerful and polarizing women, is accused by the attorney general’s office of embezzling millions in U.S.-dollar equivalents from her union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación.

Mexican authorities at Toluca International Airport arrested Gordillo after a private jet on which she was travelling from California landed. She spent the night in a Mexico City jail before appearing in court to face charges of “operating with resources of illicit origin” and “organized crime.”

The newly elected government of President Enrique Peña Nieto, after investigating the alleged embezzlements by Gordillo and her close associates between 2008 and early 2012, claims to have incontrovertible evidence linking the cash to:

• $3 million in numerous transfers to the luxury U.S. department store Neiman Marcus.

• $2 million transferred to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein in the name of a company 99 per cent owned by Gordillo’s mother. The company bought two properties in California with the money.

• $1.4 million in transfers to a private jet company called Ademex.

• $17,260 to plastic-surgery clinics in California.

All this on Gordillo’s officially reported income from 2009 to 2012 of 1.1 million pesos ($86,000).

While all this was happening, tens of thousands of union supporters shut down Mexico City’s main boulevard and protested outside key government buildings. The rally is protesting new education reforms passed by the Mexican congress and senate.

Protesters froze traffic, forced the Congress and the president to move major events, and blocked access to the international airport.

Police faced off against an army of the disaffected that included an estimated 20,000 teachers and their assorted allies, including electricians from a long-dissolved union, hooded anarchist students and members of a Mexico City squatters’ organization.

Immediately following Gordillo’s arrest, lawmakers were taken to congress in buses and under heavy police guard, where they passed an education reform bill, 390 in favour to 69 against.

Mexico’s senate then overwhelmingly approved the reform, which is designed to restructure Mexico’s notoriously dysfunctional public-school system. Mexican political analysts regard this as an important victory and a significant first step for Peña Nieto in his push to remake some of his country’s worst-run institutions.

Among other things, the senate voted 102-22 in favour of a standardized system of test-based hiring and promotion. The bill also calls for teacher evaluations and the possible firing of teachers deemed inferior.

The stakes are high for the 47-year-old Peña Nieto, whose ability to push through the overhauls will shape his presidency and determine whether Mexico is seen by investors as an emerging market on the rise.

The union blames Mexico’s poor education system — which the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks near the bottom of its membership — on inadequate funds. It says Peña Nieto wants to privatize schools, and he ignored their concerns when drafting the proposed reform.

Critics of the union respond by saying it is a historically corrupt political organization whose members care less about education than about protecting jobs, which in many cases have been handed down from generation to generation or even sold — an astounding practice by Canadian standards and one that Peña Nieto’s government is trying to end.

The government has turned the country’s congress into a fortress surrounded by high steel-sheet walls, guarded by thousands of helmeted police equipped with shields and riot gear.

And we thought education reform in B.C. was going to be challenging and that “school wars” was just an overstated turn of phrase.


Geoff Johnson is retired superintendent of schools.