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 securityA teacher protest in Oaxaca, Mexico, turned deadly. The U.S. education debate should take note.: