* Mexico's President sends education reform to Congress
* Reform would strip teachers' union of key placement power
* Reform has backing of major parties
By Alexandra Alper and Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY, Dec 10 Mexico's new president
unveiled a planned overhaul of the country's struggling
education system on Monday in a challenge to the powerful
teachers' union, which has long been seen as an obstacle to
Addressing teachers at a ceremony in Mexico City, President
Enrique Pena Nieto laid out a proposal that would champion
merit-based teacher promotions and chip away at the union's
power to hire teachers on its own terms.
"Your rights will be safe because your income, tenure and
promotion will not be subject to discretionary criteria," said
Pena Nieto, before signing the proposal that he promised to send
to the lower house of Congress later on Monday. "Good teachers
will have the opportunity to advance based on their professional
Led by Elba Esther Gordillo, widely seen as one of Mexico's
most powerful politicians, the big union has for years blocked
attempts at education reform and influenced the outcome of
Pena Nieto, 46, took office on Dec. 1, returning to power
his centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, after 12
years in the opposition, promising to push a sweeping reform
agenda. No party holds an outright majority in Congress.
The education reform is part of a broader pact signed by the
country's top parties a day after the President's inauguration.
The pact aims to break through years of political gridlock in
Congress and tackle three major reforms: increase competition in
Mexico's telecommunications sector, improve the management of
local government finances, and modernize the education system.
A key complaint about the country's schools is the teachers'
union's authority to dole out positions according to its own
criteria - through inheritance or even sale of positions.
"No more promotions for loyalty, (or) cronyism with union
leaders," said Jesus Zambrano, who heads the leftist opposition
Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). "Let's have promotion
be based on teacher merit and professionalism."
Poor education standards are frequently blamed for holding
back Latin America's second biggest economy.
While Mexico has made marked strides in educational
achievement, its students lag other industrialized nations,
especially in mathematics and science, according to a 2011
survey by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and
The reform is likely to pass Congress since it already
enjoys backing from the major parties. But the teachers may push
back hard against the changes.
A former PRI grandee who broke with her old party before the
2006 general election, Gordillo was re-elected in October and
escaped a recent bid by the conservative National Action Party
(PAN) to impose more transparency on the country's unions that
would have weakened her position.
The PRI had strong ties with the union during the 71 years
it ruled Mexico before the PAN ousted it in a 2000 election.
There have been mounting calls for Gordillo's removal as
union leader but "la maestra" ("the teacher") has a tight hold
on a small party the PRI needs for votes and it is unlikely to
cooperate with Pena Nieto if his government tries to oust her.
The reform, according to politicians at the event, includes
measures aimed at giving more autonomy to schools, voiding
promotions not based on merit, and launching a nationwide survey
to register teachers and students.
It also would grant independence to an organization charged
with evaluating the educational system.
"We all agree on a central point: we urgently need to reform
and modernize the legal framework for higher quality, more
equitable education," said Pena Nieto.