Perhaps it is not surprising in the present political climate that the deaths of 12 teachers fighting to defend public education in Mexico have gone virtually unnoticed. The presidential hopeful and presumptive Republican Party nominee Donald Trump has built a vast political following railing for the construction of a wall to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. His rhetoric obscured important events inside Mexico.
Last Sunday in the southern state of Oaxaca, demonstrations turned deadly. Government security forces opened fire on a group of teachers engaged in an act of civil disobedience, undertaken to focus attention on government efforts to undermine public education.
The protests were not unexpected. A broad coalition of students, teachers and activists have been engaged in a range of non-violent protests since Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto first announced his education plans in 2013. These so-called national education policy reforms promote the typical agenda of Global Corporate Education Reform including the general defunding of public education, the adoption of standardized testing, the evaluation of teachers tied to student test scores and the privatization of schools. While Nieto appears to be the chief proponent of the laws international conglomerates such as The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the World Bank are the real driving force behind such neoliberal reforms in Mexico and beyond.
As in countless communities across the United States, Mexican teachers have revealed the damaging features of these so-called reforms. Such measures further alienate, marginalize, and deny opportunities to low-income students. Teachers also called attention to the failure of politicians to consider the inadequacies of testing in addressing the specialized needs of many students from rural and indigenous communities.
The government response in Mexico has been heavy-handed and violent. Thousands of teachers have been fired. Smaller numbers have been detained. In spite of the peaceful nature of the protests, Mexican officials sanctioned the use of what they initially described as "moderate force" against teachers. These supposed "moderate" tactics were used last week against activists occupying a highway in Oaxaca with tragic consequences.
Activists and analysts both in Mexico and the United States have read these efforts as an attempt to subvert the democratizing potential of public education. In a recent TeleSUR interview for instance, National Autonomous University of Mexico professor and Legal Scholar John M. Ackerman observed that the government's efforts amount to a concerted effort to "get rid of the revolutionary tradition that has persisted in education since the early 1920s."
Teachers in the United States have expressed similar concerns and have been involved in comparable actions aimed at drawing attention to the corrosive impact of corporate education reform and defunding schemes upon public schools. Last Wednesday, Chicago Public School Parents and teachers were barred from entering City Council Chambers at City Hall where they staged a massive protest against budget cuts. Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin powerfully expressed what might very well be the global call to action that is driving educators to protest. "Teachers are fighting for equitable, progressive revenue solutions so our schools will stay open in the fall and our students will not see further cuts to their education," she explained. The closing of democratic channels in Chicago and the violence in Mexico have unfortunately come to represent a pattern of indifference that mocks the civic virtue once so closely identified with public education.
A little more than a week before the violence in Oaxaca on June 11, President Nieto announced his administration would meet with teachers but only after they agreed to "comply with two conditions: returning to work in the schools of Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, and Oaxaca, and accepting the Education Reform." The lack of choice is evident in those conditions. Autocratic directives like Nieto's underscore the necessity of educators from around the world to take to the streets as advocates for sane education policies. The situation in Mexico and Chicago signal a crisis on a global scale, the impact of which will determine our children's future.
Back in February, Civil Rights activist and former educator Delores Huerta focused in on the crux of the problem in a cease and desist letter directed at Student Matter. This corporate education reform non-profit backed efforts to end teacher tenure in California and falsely attributed statements to her in support of their anti-union and anti-public education stances. Making a clear distinction between her views and those of the so called reformers, Huerta noted "I strongly believe in providing all children with equal access to a quality public education, and that starts with having educators who have the professional rights to stand up and speak out for the students in their classrooms."
That professional right to defend student needs doubles as a moral obligation to stand for those chained by the blight of poverty and silenced by the might of corporate greed, public indifference and government corruption. This includes occupying the hallways of Chicago City Hall and the public highways of Oaxaca. We must ensure not only that students have access to a quality education but also that the roots of democracy and republican government are not lost.