MEXICO CITY - President Enrique Peña Nieto on Monday announced a broad reform aimed at improving Mexico's sclerotic educational system, a plan that also seems aimed at weakening the enormously powerful teachers union.
Mexico has some of the worst public schools in the hemisphere, consistently placing low on international surveys of education quality. Many blame the union and its autocratic boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, who have perpetuated a system that allows teachers to buy or inherit their jobs, regardless of skill or qualifications.
The initiative announced Monday by Peña Nieto would establish a separate and autonomous body to evaluate teachers, something that has not existed. The president also ordered the national statistics agency to conduct an accurate counting of teachers. One of the absurdities of the Mexican system has been that authorities do not really know how many teachers and schools Mexico has. That allowed Gordillo to skirt a full accounting of the enormous budget she controls, critics contend.
Gordillo, who had herself declared "president for life" of the union, has been accused of using the organization to amass great personal wealth, including real estate in Southern California. She has denied wrongdoing but does not hesitate to flaunt her riches through designer clothes, jewelry and expensive cars.
Politicians are often afraid of her because she can turn out more than a million votes in national elections.
Although Peña Nieto has been promising numerous reforms, the education plan - and challenging Gordillo - will represent an important test for his political skills and commitment to change.
In an elaborate ceremony to present the initiative, Peña Nieto told an audience at the Anthropology Museum that the goal was to reassert federal government control over the educational system as a way to improve the quality of learning for students and make teachers more professional.
"A fair and technically designed evaluation will strengthen the performance of teachers and help dignify the profession," he said. "The basis for changing Mexico is in education."
The plan already seemed to be gathering political support. The president was joined by leaders of Mexico's three main political parties.
Gordillo, however, was absent.