The Tragedy in Oaxaca Really Puts America’s Squabbles Over Education Reform in Perspective

Mexican federal police clash with teachers during a protest against education reform and the arrest of two of its leaders in Oaxaca on Sunday.

Patricia Castellanos/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a nastiness to conversations about U.S. education reform, which are characterized by the kind of stark taking-of-sides that’s usually reserved for debates over guns or abortion rights. One side often sees the other as union-busting corporate reformers who’ve never been inside an actual classroom yet are hell-bent on reducing all learning to meaningless, time-destroying tests and evaluations. The other, at its worst, portrays its opponents as parasitic, lazy, abusive teachers who care more about their benefits package than the children they’re supposed to be educating. Both are dangerous, inaccurate distortions that keep divisions within the education community fresh and festering.

But however rancorous the debate gets, the U.S. has never seen anything like what happened in Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, over the weekend, when a massive strike organized by a radical wing of the country’s largest teachers union turned into a violent confrontation with police. At last (disputed) count, nine people, including one journalist, have been killed, about 100 (a combination of civilians and police officers) have been injured, and at least 20 arrested. It’s a tragic culmination of what should’ve been a peaceful dispute over what the future of education in Mexico should look like.

First, some glancing background, since this was by no means an out-of-thin-air showdown: For decades, the left-leaning Oaxaca teachers union, the National Coordinator of Education Workers (or CNTE), has gone on annual strikes that usually yielded modest pay raises. In 2006, the state governor sent in 750 police officers to break up the strikes, upping the ante considerably. In the end, the ceremonial strikes became a full-scale civic rebellion that lasted more than six months and led to more than a dozen deaths. More than a million kids were out of school for the duration.

Over the past several years, the strikes of Sección 22, as the Oaxaca chapter of CNTE is known, have had a different focus: the education reforms pushed by President Enrique Peña Nieto, passed the year after he entered office in 2013. The reforms, an attempt to modernize Mexico’s flailing education system and therefore the country as a whole, mandate a test given to teachers as well as a performance review. If teachers fail three times in a row, they could be fired, stripped of the job security they’ve traditionally enjoyed. It’s an evaluation system that’s completely without precedent in the history of Mexican education.

In the run-up to this weekend’s conflagration, the government has fired teachers en masse for striking and jailed several Sección 22 leaders on money laundering charges. The union, meanwhile, no stranger to violent tactics, has shut down streets, disrupted traffic on the highway between Mexico City and Oaxaca, and blocked access to an important oil refinery in the region.

Then, on Sunday, the explosion. Protesters in Oaxaca threw rocks and Molotov cocktails and set cars on fire; riot police took over and “unknown gunmen” opened fire on the crowd in an apocalyptic scene that one El País correspondent aptly compared to Iraq:

(While the Associated Press filmed at least one policeman shooting a gun, the government denies that the federal police were armed; there were also state police present.) Chaos reigned.

So was this confrontation inevitable—and will it ever be resolved?

Here is a viral video (in Spanish) of a teacher explaining why the mandatory tests are so unwelcome: because Mexico is a huge, diverse country (sound familiar?) and you can’t hold teachers in the capital to the same standards as, say, those in the remote mountains of Chiapas. (He also says, to much audience approval, that Peña Nieto, who has the reputation of a lightweight, probably wouldn’t be able to meet the standards he’s imposing on teachers himself.)

And it’s true that some of the teachers in rural areas might not have the same academic qualifications—particularly in a place like Oaxaca, which for all its tourist delights of its capital is one of Mexico’s poorest states, with a large indigenous population and substandard infrastructure. In this Carlos Puig column from 2013, the New York Times gives a good description of the unquantifiable daily challenges that some of these teachers face:

Being a teacher in Oaxaca means sometimes having to travel for an entire day to reach your school in a tiny community, teach for three days — to children of all grades — and travel back home for the weekend. It means having to deal with children who speak more than 20 different dialects.

Being a teacher in Oaxaca means operating in a different universe — and under different rules.

On the other hand, the Mexican education system is struggling—with the majority of Mexican elementary school graduates unable to perform even basic arithmetic—and many Mexicans support reform of some sort, though it’s unclear that the haphazard measures pushed by Peña Nieto will do the trick. And again, while there are other pressing societal problems affecting the country’s schools, like child poverty and infrastructure and funding (to say nothing of what or how students are taught), so far much of the debate has focused on these teacher evaluations.

After the horrific events of Sunday, teachers in other Mexican cities are mobilizing in solidarity with Oaxaca, and there have even been protests in front of the Mexican Embassy in Paris. But there’s little hope of reconciliation between the Peña Nieto’s government and the dissident unions. The CNTE will continue protesting the reforms, as it has every right to do; the Peña Nieto administration will continue pushing its education reform agenda, as it has staked much on its success. (The education secretary has just reaffirmed that the reforms are “not subject to negotiation.”)

In the absence of any common ground, we can only hope that, in the future, Mexicans on opposing sides of the education reform debate can pursue this frustrating, irresolvable, and utterly necessary conversation without the riot police having to get involved.