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Is Mexico Prioritizing Human Capital?

Mexico desperately needs to re-evaluate its education system.


The next Mexican national election, set for July 1, 2012, is rapidly approaching and presidential politics are heating up. The primary season has drawn to a close, with each of the three largest parties – the governing, conservative PAN, the once-dominant PRI and the leftist PRD – settling on their respective candidates. As these hopefuls elbow and jostle for position, there has been no shortage of controversy.  

In the midst of this, a group of activists have been pushing another equally important controversy into the spotlight of Mexican political life: that of the failure of the nation’s education system. In February, the non-profit advocacy group Mexicanos Primeros released the scathing documentary De Panzazo (“Barely Passing”), shining an unflattering light on Mexico’s schools and especially the national teacher’s union that the group argues is holding back progress in order to protect its entrenched privilege.  

At the head of that union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE), is Elba Esther Gordillo, one of the most powerful women in Mexico. Her power derives from the loyalty of her union base, the largest trade union in Latin America, and the money, votes and thus political clout that comes with it. The creators of De Panzazo, along with many education reformers, place the blame for Mexico’s educational underachievement directly on her shoulders for defending the system’s favoritism and corruption from which many teachers benefit. Heightening the drama is the mutual distaste – some say, hatred – between Gordillo and the candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, who in her capacity as Calderon’s Education Minister struggled in vain to limit the union leader’s influence on education policy. 

What then is the state of education policy in a country with a former Education Minister running for President and a documentary on reform dominating the headlines? The film rightly dramatizes many sobering realities: only 51 percent of students who begin school make it past the elementary level, seven of 10 adolescents can’t read or multiply, test scores are at the bottom of the OECD’s comparative Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings and the practice of teachers selling their posts persists. This is all particularly troubling for a country that spends more than six percent of GDP and 25 percent of its public expenditures (both above OECD averages) on education – indicating that money alone is not at the heart of the matter.

Yet, in an important sense, Mexico has been at the forefront of a wave of fundamental reforms that have reshaped social policy in Latin America. Mexican policymakers pioneered the so-called “human development approach” with the Progresa/Oportunidades programs, which shifted the development paradigm away from expensive and politically motivated generalized subsidy regimes and towards the highly targeted Conditional Cash Transfer model. This model, launched in 1997 by a Zedillo administration facing an acute budget crisis, concentrates on the most extreme poor and provides carefully selected households with direct cash transfers in return for verifiable steps such as making sure their children attend classes and receive regular checkups. Such a multi-dimensional approach, with its focus on education, health, and nutrition recognizes that a focus on the development of human capital is central to cultivating the kind of work force that will thrive in a globalized economy based on competition and innovation. 

Given Mexico’s limited but real success, it is a model that others in the region have adopted, most notably Brazil with its Bolsa Familia program. The picture that De Panzazo paints is bleak, but there has been some progress. The PISA rankings, while poor, still point to an upward trajectory: enrollment has increased from 52 percent in 2000 to 66 percent in 2009 and Mexico’s overall PISA score of 425 in 2009, while well below the United States’ 500, was a significant improvement over their previous score of 409 in 2006. President Calderon set a goal of 435 for 2012 and PISA’s analysis shows that they are on target to meet that goal on schedule.

Indeed, the animosity between the two most powerful women in Mexico, candidate Vazquez Mota and union leader Gordillo, stems from their 2008 confrontation over an ambitious education reform law known as the Alliance for Quality Education. The law, which passed, resulted in the first national teacher performance test and required that teacher raises and hiring be subjected to a more rigorous evaluation process. It also, however, resulted in Vazquez Mota’s pressured resignation from her post – a lesson that any politician with ambitions of further educational reform will surely ponder before choosing to lock horns with Gordillo. If only for that reason, the debate that Mexicanos Primeros are hoping to start with De Panzazo is one that Mexico desperately needs to have.

Gabriel Sanchez Zinny is managing partner at Blue Star Strategies. He wrote this column for Latin Business Chronicle.


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