Mexico ranks last among the forty-one countries that participate in the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment. But as the average Mexican attends school for only eight and a half years, about 40 percent of Mexican 15- to 19-year-olds have completely dropped out of school and are unemployed, writes Dana Goldstein at the Nation.
As next year's election looms, only one of the presidential candidates Marcelo Ebrard CasaubÃ³n, current mayor of Mexico City, identified education as one of the nation's foremost economic, social and cultural problems.
Others are leaning on the unions, blaming them for the poor schooling records. VÃ¡zquez Mota, a candidate from the ruling center-right National Action Party and former education minister, claimed that when it comes to education, "the major challenge has to do with the union doing their job."
Manlio Fabio Beltrones, the Senate leader and a second-tier PRI candidate, complained that the union "has its own agenda" when the agenda should be "a quality elementary education for everybody."
Goldstein believe union bashing and focusing on primary school education is "too modest" for a nation like Mexico, which faces stiff labor market competition from Asia, where countries like China and South Korea have prioritized educating their workforce.
Thanks to reforms begun by President Felipe CalderÃ³n's administration the 1.5-million members of the Mexican teachers union have defended some horrifying practices, including the family inheritance and buying and selling of teaching jobs.
"For the first time in the history of education in Mexico, teaching positions are now assigned due to merit, and not for political reasons," said VÃ¡zquez Mota.
Almost all Mexican children are now attending primary school, a sure accomplishment in a nation where half the population live in poverty. But the priority ought to be connecting all poor children to a full twelve years of quality formal schooling, writes Goldstein.
"In order to do this, Mexico must continue to grow its economy and must fight poverty just as doggedly as it has fought the drug war—and hopefully more successfully. Teachers unions should modernize their practices, and in both Mexico and the United States, they are well on their way to meaningful reform.
"But the truth is, weakening labor protections for teachers will not, on its own, solve the international problem of educational inequality."
While at home, state budget crises are forcing schools to cut crucial programs and staff, many millions of Mexican children see their basic educations cut short well before they gain the skills necessary to live an economically stable life. Teachers unions have little control over these poor educational and macroeconomic conditions, and are not responsible for them, writes Goldstein.