MEXICO CITY – If you thought students hated tests, you should check out how teachers in Mexico feel about them.

mexcio tent cityThreatened by the prospect of professional competency tests and other education reforms, union teachers have recently walked off the job en masse – leaving empty classrooms in their wakes – as they protest in the nation’s capital. The protesting teachers have set up tent cities, closed down streets, started fires, hurled rocks at riot police, and forced government officials to physically remove them.

The collective tantrum began when President Enrique Peña Nieto launched education reforms meant to turn around decades of teacher union domination and abuses that have put politics ahead of kids.

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A history of union abuses

Teacher unions have long been a prominent part of the political landscape in Mexico.

“Politics in this state is increasingly being supported by teachers,” Marco Antonio Poot Cahun, a recent university graduate, told USA Today. He recounted stories of his childhood teachers coming to his home during election campaigns to stump for certain candidates, or even paying cash for voter IDs to suppress the number of votes for opponents.

Teacher unions are the perfect political vehicle in Mexico because they are well-organized, reach into every tiny town across the country, and teachers often wield influence over their students and their families.

Nevertheless, the Mexican public has a “growing awareness that the teaching profession is a union racket, not a public service,” wrote Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal.

Traditionally, only graduates from the official teacher’s university have been eligible for jobs and those graduates are guaranteed a job regardless of their merits. For example, veteran teachers have been known to sell or bequeath their jobs to friends or relatives. Thousands more collect teacher salaries without ever stepping into a classroom, serving as union activists instead.

Union control has led to disastrous results, according to The Guardian, as Mexico has the highest educational costs and the worst student performance among the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Ninety percent of its education funding goes to staff compensation.

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Scandals like the use of public funds to reward dozens of union loyalists with brand new Hummers haven’t helped the teaching profession’s image. Nearly 60 percent of the Mexican public supported forcibly removing teachers who blocked traffic in Mexico City during the latest fracas, reported the Mexican newspaper Reforma.

Simply put, parents and students are fed up. In the poor state of Oaxaca, teachers have gone on strike annually for the past 30 years.

“This is classic rent extraction,” Manuel Molano, adjunct-director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, told USA Today. “Every time that they march, they can actually get an increase in their budgets. There’s a profit margin.”

Of course, as Molano pointed out, the students who are left without teachers are ultimately paying the price for fatter benefits. During the current protests, for example, an estimated one million children in the state of Oaxaca alone have no teacher in the classroom.

Students in Oaxaca held a march of their own, reported the Wall Street Journal, holding signs with slogans like “Teacher, respect my right to an education.”

Ed reform and violent reaction

Even if teacher unions are unwilling to take their students’ advice, Mexican lawmakers are finally listening.

When President Peña Nieto was elected, he vowed to reform the corruption that infiltrated Mexico’s school system.

“Our dilemma had been whether to continue to stagnate or to allow the state to recover the leadership and transform and improve the quality of education,” Peña Nieto said during his first State of the Union address. “Education reform will move forward because it carries with it the future of Mexico.”

The reforms seem sensible, if not overdue. Graduates from other universities will be allowed to compete for teaching jobs. Teachers will no longer be allowed to sell or bequeath their positions. Union activists will not collect full-time teacher salaries. And – gasp! – teachers will be evaluated for hiring and promotion based on performance and competency testing rather than union fealty.

“The inheritance and sale of jobs has ended,” Education Secretary Emilio Chuayffet told The Guardian. “Merit is the ideal means of access to, and progress in, a teaching career.”

Sensible or not, the reforms directly challenge union control of the education system, and radicalized union members have responded with a vengeance.

After filing out of classrooms, they set up tent cities in downtown Mexico City, snarling traffic for weeks. The union teachers armed themselves with rocks and pipes, clashed with police, and even took hostages. They were finally forced out with tear gas and water cannons.

Teachers marched, Forbes reported, while shouting “The fight goes on!” In reality, they have lost the fight.

Ultimately, the public pouting has failed to stop reforms. Mexico’s Congress approved the bulk of the changes by a wide margin – 102-22 in the Senate – with widespread support from across the political spectrum. The AP reported that the final bill was only slightly weakened from Peña Nieto’s original vision for reform.

In Mexico, at last, children are being valued above union spoils.

Authored by Lisa Williams