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Mexico's struggling schools
Mexico spends nearly one quarter of its budget on education. Yet its schools are lagging behind, with Mexican students scoring the lowest reading levels of all developed countries. Jennifer Collins reports from Oaxaca and Mexico City.
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Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.

There is just one way to get a teaching job in Mexico and that is through the teachers union.

“If you want to get a job as a principal of a school you have to go to the union delegate and you have to pay him,” says Jorge Javier Romero of Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University. Romero means that a potential candidate would have to bribe the union delegate. Romero has been studying his country's education system for nearly 15 years.

There is one teachers union in Mexico's basic education system. It has over a million members. Everyone from the first-year teacher to the superintendent is in it. There are commissions that are supposed to determine who gets which job. But in reality, “The union decides,” says Romero.

According to Romero, the money changes hands “in the last moment of the transaction, between the person who wants the position and the delegate of the union.” 

Romero says a position like a principal can costs around $2,000 and he believes those envelopes full of money are among the most harmful things in the education system. 

“You have teachers that only pay for the position and they don't have to demonstrate that they know how to write and how to read. In Mexico you have [a lot] of teachers that [do not] know how to read or how to write,” says Romero. 

This year, for the first time, Mexico required primary teachers to take an exam in their own subject matter. Results show around 70 percent of them earned what would be considered a failing score in most schools. RAND economist Lucrecia Santibañez says student achievement in Mexico is just as bad. 

However, the poor education system in Mexico is not due to a lack of funding. For example, around 13 percent of US government spending goes to education. In Mexico, it's almost a quarter of the budget. The problem, Santibanez says, is what that budget funds. 

“A high proportion of the education budget, and we're talking really high proportion here, like over 90 percent, is tied up in teacher salaries,” says Santibanez.

The funding problem is also the result of a federal mandate. For instance, one percent of teachers’ salaries go to the union headed by Elba Esther Gordillo. Ms. Gordillo is the head of the National Union of Education Workers. 

She is known to wear Chanel and carry $3,000 Prada bags. She owns luxury properties around the world. In a 2003 interview in her Mexico City penthouse, Ms. Gordillo talked about her lavish lifestyle, which she says comes from an inheritance.

“I think I don't live too bad. I think I live pretty comfortably. And that millions and millions of people don't have the basics. I'm well aware of that,” says Gordillo. 

Gordillo unofficially started her own political party. There are claims she has attempted to extort money from officials. There are even allegations she had a rival murdered in the 1980s. However, nothing was proven. But professor Jorge Javier Romero says those rumors make her a polarizing figure. 

“Everybody hates her. She's not very popular outside the union of course,” says Romero. 

But on the inside, it's another story. Visit a union office in Oaxaca and Gordillo is celebrated in a watercolor painting on the wall. 

Gabriel Aguiar Ortega is Gordillo's representative in Oaxaca. He dismisses allegations that she siphons off money. He has known her since the 1990s, and he says she is always fighting for the working conditions of teachers.

“She’s a woman with a lot of enthusiasm. She’s a big shot,” says Aguiar Ortega. 

The union also owns real estate and hotels and its estimated income is around half a billion dollars a year, according to David Calderon, the director general of an education reform group called Mexicanos Primeros. Calderon says that the union has none of the transparency requirements of a federal agency.

“You have a private corporation taking over the system – the public system,” says Calderon.

Calderon says the union uses that money to maintain its power. He says union loyalists can even be found inside the secretary of education. 

“It is clear that the officials are not in charge. It's the people from the union,” says Calderon.

There is no better demonstration of this than what you see at a union building during summer vacation. Instead of empty hallways, dozens of teachers stream in and out. Almost everyone is carrying a manila folder. 

“What's happening is we're in a period of paperwork. Many colleagues are coming to change zones, work centers or others are coming to apply for work,” says Union Secretary of Professional Issues, Bersain Gonzalez Vazquez.

Teachers do not go to the Secretary of Education, but rather they go to the union. 

I ask Gonzalez Vazquez if applicants in Oaxaca ever give union delegates money in exchange for jobs.

“Well the issue of corruption is really complicated. It seems when someone wants some service or some job, we think to offer money for that service. It has become like a system,” says Gonzalez Vazquez. 

As another part of that system, teachers often give their posts to their sons or daughters. During the interview, Gonzalez Vazquez's son Adair plays a video game on his dad's cell phone. The 8-year-old is asked what he wants to be when he grows up. 

“A teacher,” says Adair, just like his dad and his dad may be able to help him get his wish. 

“If he likes teaching – fortunately here in Oaxaca – we teachers still have the ability to leave our jobs to our kids,” says Gonzalez Vazquez.

Just like an inheritance, that is, if the children can get through the school system. 

At a Oaxacan public school, 26 children, ages three to six, are crammed into a tiny classroom without desks or chairs or tables. They are playing a math game. Equipment, paper and supplies cover the counters. Petra Grindelia Lopez Hernandez is the principal of the school.

“In this class, the teacher has to make activities for the lowest little ones and to make more complicated ones for the older children,” says Lopez Hernandez. 

Lopez Hernandez says the school only had funding for three teachers in this summer program. However, crowded classrooms are the least of her concerns. She says she has not been getting rent money for the school from education officials.

“Right now we haven't paid the rent. We've been waiting six months. I don't know, maybe one day we'll [have] class in the town square,” says Lopez Hernandez. 

Lopez Hernandez’s school cannot afford a janitor. Therefore, teachers take turns cleaning. The conditions of the school building are so poor that throughout the entire school, there are only three bathrooms and none have toilet seats.

“And for kids with disabilities, they haven't been well adapted. They don’t have ramps. The teachers… we have to help them, carry them so they can enter the bathroom,” says Lopez Hernandez.

Though education in Mexico is officially free, parents are often asked to pay a fee. 

Bertha Julian Torres is waiting outside the school to take her grandchildren home. She says the family pays an inscription fee of a 100 pesos a year. That equals to about $7.50. 

“It's a problem because the only one who works is my son,” says Julian Torres.

And while some call for more federal funding, professor Jorge Javier Romero is skeptical.

“I'm sure if you put more money in the educational system, you are going to put it in the trash can because you have to change the relationship between the union and the state,” says Romero.

He says ultimately, Mexico’s competitiveness depends on it.

– Reported by Jennifer Collins for America Abroad

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Mexico: Looking Forward / Produced by Alisa Barba, Jennifer Collins, Franc Contreras, Michel Marizco, A.C. Valdez, and Jonathon Zinger. Edited by Martha Little / Special thanks to Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, a public radio collaboration in the southwest that covers border and immigration issues / Web Producer: Javier Barrera / Photos: AP Images, antenne (Flickr), Javier Barrera, Foundation Escalera (Flickr), and Marcela Taboada.

Host: Ray Suarez / Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: August 2012

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