Mexico City Teachers Take to the Streets to Protest Education Reforms

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. Count your blessings, you're not in Mexico City traffic right now. Thousands of teachers there took to the streets of the Mexico capital to protest again today as they have for the past two weeks, and again, they've clashed with police and clogged traffic in the already congested city. The teachers are protesting a new education reform law requiring performance evaluations. They see it as an attempt to smash the power of labor unions in Mexico. The government and President Enrique Pena Nieto says it simply wants to fix Mexico's dysfunctional education system. Reporter Frank Contreras is in Mexico City. First of all, Frank, how bad is that chaos in the streets in Mexico City today. Give us a taste.

Frank Contreras: Well, this city is known for bad traffic anyway, but it was so bad the other day I was stuck in traffic for about three hours, Marco. Of course, it's also the rainy season, so when you put it all together it just becomes a massive chaos and you can imagine how many people are just so upset at these teachers for blocking off major avenues, including important thoroughfares that take people to the international airport for example, but it's also businesses that are hit by this. They can't sell. A man I know, my neighbor has a furniture store in that part of Mexico City where the protests are taking place at this hour. And he can't sell a single stick of furniture. You can imagine how upset he is.

Werman: Yeah, well underlying the traffic jams and the popular anger with the protesting teachers who seem to be causing it is a big issue. So sum it up for us, Frank, what is wrong with Mexico's education system?

Contreras: That's right, well the media here are trying to report it largely as a traffic problem, but this is really an essential systematic problem. We have a situation right now, Marco, with the teachers in the streets in the Mexican capital. That means hundreds of thousands of students in some of Mexico's poorest states, places like Michoacan, Guerrero, Oaxaca, states that have historically sent many migrants to the United States, those places are now, the classrooms are now empty and children there are not able to attend their classes because the teachers are out on the streets trying to protect their jobs basically. What we see here is a Mexico that has an education system that is among the lowest compared to developing nations of a similar level here. Mexico consistently ranks among the lowest and the poorest in terms of the kinds of quality of education that students can get. It was revealed this summer that the textbooks that are given out by the Mexico government, free textbooks, as an effort to try and help poorer people here in the country, well those textbooks were just filled with grammar, spelling errors and even geographical errors, historical errors and things like this. But this is something that's been going on for years and years. It's a longstanding problem, Marco, that goes all the way back to the Mexican Revolution.

Werman: So do the teachers have a point that this education reform is basically a government plan to break the Mexican teachers union?

Contreras: Marco, the new laws that were signed into place this week are clearly designed to weaken the teachers union. That's because the members of the union historically have had the right to inherit their jobs. They actually pass their jobs onto their sons and daughters if they wanted to, sons and daughters who probably never went to university. Also, teachers could buy their jobs. If they had enough money they could scrape up enough money from their villages, they could purchase one of these jobs. It didn't have anything to do with their ability to teach or even to have knowledge of the specific area that they're teaching in. This was a longstanding problem and I think that the people who are out in the protest marches in Mexico City today, those are the people that we're talking about. They're the people who've inherited their jobs, who want to pass their jobs on to their children or to somebody else who can pay them for those jobs, and they want to be able to keep those rights. They know that this new law that was created this week is going to do away with that entirely. So they're thinking of it as you know, their economic life is at risk. And that's really what they're fighting about here.

Werman: Well, we'll certainly keep our eye on it. Reporter Frank Contreras in Mexico City, thank you as always, Frank.

Contreras: Thank you, Marco.