Mexico's presidential election brought a rare consensus in the U.S. press. Ideologically diverse outlets from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal seemed to agree (see here and here; subscriptions required) that Felipe Calderón, Mexico's new leader (recount notwithstanding), has two choices. He can either revive a faltering economy by opening the country's mostly-closed economy to outside investment or he can cast his lot with leaders of other Latin American states who prefer either populist demagoguery or inaction to real reform. By choosing the former, they argue, he can develop good opportunities for Mexicans at home and help stem the flow of workers northward.
Yet the media focused so intently on economic issues that they largely ignored another Mexican system in urgent need of reform: K-12 education. Even with liberalized economics, it's impossible to create jobs and promising opportunities when large swaths of the country's population remain mostly uneducated.
Mexico has a lot going for it. It's flush with natural resources, is blessed with thousands of miles of coastline, and abuts the world's most prosperous nation. Yet Mexico remains mired in poverty and continues to hemorrhage human capital to the United States.
That's not surprising when the nation's K-12 schools are models of bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. They are also in thrall to the all-powerful National Education Workers Union, which has done much to devalue and degrade classroom instruction for Mexican children.
For example, the teachers union has advocated keeping the elementary school day limited to a paltry four hours of instruction. It has opposed any overhaul of an 80-year-old middle school curriculum that perceptive government officials say is in desperate need of modernizing.
And then there's teacher absenteeism, a major problem in Mexico because firing teachers, even when they habitually miss work, is prevented by the union. A 2004 Washington Post article quoted one principal, Jose Luis Gonzalez, who could not fire his school's ninth-grade math teacher despite the instructor's taking another job and missing 75 percent of his classes.
Even more shocking is the union's de facto custom of "selling" teaching jobs, or taking bribe money to expedite certain individuals' teacher applications. A top Education Ministry official told the Post, "The union is a business for selling jobs."
Add to this graft the schools' incompetent, centralized control and the results are predictable: a 2005-06 World Economic Forum report placed the quality of Mexican education 81st out of 117 countries. Only 25 percent of the nation's students graduate from high school.
When U.S. politicians discuss immigration, and when the White House begins negotiating with the new Mexican administration, improving that nation's elementary-secondary education system should be a priority. Illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States may be primarily the result of Mexico's lagging economy, but according to a recent World Education and Development Fund paper (and common sense), "One of the key factors thwarting economic growth in Mexico is the extremely poor education level of its citizens."
Those who are most frequently shortchanged in Mexico's classrooms come from rural areas, many in the country's south. And the vast majority of undocumented immigrants come from those areas, too. A recent New York Times Magazine article details that 60 percent of Mexican immigrants in the United States are dropouts.
Calderón espouses sound, market-based policies on the economic front, but change may still be slow to come. According to Stephen Johnson of the Heritage Foundation, Mexican citizens are notoriously wary of efforts to reform their country's "sacred cows," whether that means fighting the teacher unions or allowing principals more control over their schools.
Mexico's outgoing President Vicente Fox missed the chance to reform his nation's public schools. Let's hope the United States leans on Calderón to do the right thing and that Mexico's new leader has the cojones to enact some real change.