The head of the Mexican teachers' union (SNTE), Elba Esther Gordillo, has been arrested for embezzling over $156 million from union funds, according to a recent BBC report. Gordillo allegedly used the funds to purchase private property, private planes and plastic surgery.
If the allegations are true (and there is considerable evidence that they are), this would be an enormous amount of money stolen from the teachers, who earn less than $20,000 per year, on average. However, the prosecution of Gordillo probably has little to do with concern for the plight of the average Mexican teacher, for whom the ruling elite have little compassion (except possibly a few crocodile tears during election time). Rather, it is a strategic move meant to neutralize an individual and an organization that have stood in the way of private financial gain.
Gordillo has been an outspoken critic of the government’s free market reform agenda, thus slowing (ever so slightly) the juggernaut of privatization occurring in Mexico, as in public education systems throughout the world. While Gordillo, like her colleagues in the U.S. and other countries, has been relatively impotent in this endeavor, what little efforts she has made are still considered unacceptable to education profiteers who demand complete unfettered access to education tax dollars. Her arrest is also likely meant to reduce the political influence of her union (she has repeatedly rallied her 1.5 million members to vote as a bloc and used their dues in political campaigns), and send a message to anyone critical of the government’s privatization agenda.
Had the government truly cared about the wellbeing of its impoverished teachers, it would have prosecuted Gordillo years ago. Indeed, she had repeatedly been accused of fraud and embezzlement over the years, but the government chose to ignore the accusations until now. It is curious that Gordillo was arrested only one day after the government enacted major new reforms to the education system.
According to the union, these new reforms could result in mass layoffs and the further privatization of the Mexican education system. One of the reforms, for example, will require teachers to undergo regular examinations in order to maintain their jobs. Considering that many teachers are poorly trained or under qualified, this clearly could result in massive layoffs.
The new legislation also strips away union influence over hiring and promotions and implements merit-based systems for both. According to Reuters, this was intended to halt a corrupt system in which teaching jobs were passed down through families or sold by the union, while veteran teachers were getting cushy paid positions within the union, calling in substitutes to fill in for them in the classroom, and continuing to receive paychecks for their teaching responsibilities. Gordillo was quoted by Reuters saying “either the government bureaucracy sells them [teaching jobs], or my bureaucracy sells them. . . “
The quality of public education in Mexico is not good. Mexican students perform near the bottom compared with other OECD nations. Reformers blame union corruption for the problem and argue that the new legislation will end this corruption, raise the standards of the teaching profession in Mexico and improve educational outcomes for students. However, without providing good quality free or inexpensive teacher training programs, the new legislation will merely throw people out of work without doing anything to get quality teachers into the classrooms. Furthermore, as in all merit-based programs, even the well-trained, honest teachers who show up every day and do an excellent job will be at risk of losing their jobs if student performance data (which is correlated much more with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and other outside of school influences than it is with teacher quality) does not improve sufficiently.