Friday, March 6, 2015

Today's Headlines: Sorry, kids, we got pot holes to fix

Excelsior’s front page served this week as the publicity arm of Mexicanos Primero, the civic group pushing to improve the dismal state of Mexican eduction.
    Led by Kimberly-Clark de México CEO Claudio X. González, MP introduced itself to the public in 2011 with the release of its documentary “De panzazo,” which might be translated as “barely passing.” The film was, as they say, a scathing indictment of a dysfunctional system. It targeted  the national teachers union (the SNTE); there were lots of scenes of uniformed students milling about with no classes to go to because of teacher absenteeism.
    But it also went after the Public Education Secretariat, playing up for comic effect news anchor and documentary host Carlos Loret de Mola’s futile efforts to get someone — anyone — in the SEP bureaucracy to tell him how many teachers were on payroll nationwide.
    MP was born out of the business sector, not academia. Like most conservative education reform organizations, it tends to scapegoat teachers, push back-to-basics over innovation, and see testing and standards as cure-alls. Reasonable people can argue those assumptions, but the teachers themselves aren’t the problem. Instead, they should be seen as a  resource and starting point for solving the problem. Demonizing the lot for the behavior of a minority and their corrupt union’s grip on them is demagogic and self-defeating.
    Four years later, then-SNTE leader Elba Esther Gordillo is behind bars, and the SEP is under a different administration and a different party. But nothing’s changed much. Mexicanos Primero is still writing critical reports of the system’s performance, and Excelsior is still writing headlines for them.
    On Tuesday, the paper led with “30% don’t go to class in the south of the country.” Wednesday’s top head was “84% of education spending goes to salaries.”  Today Excelsior leads with another cricial report, but this time from the United Nations, not Mexicanos Primero.
    The headline — “Education funds spent on asphalt” — is attention-grabbing but a little misleading. The money in question is not specifically targeted for education. It comes from a special federal fund called Fonregión that’s allotted to the 10 poorest states to use for programs aimed at reducing economic inequality.
    Education programs are one possible and recommended use. Maintaining streets and sidewalks is clearly not in the spirit of the thing; local government is supposed to take care of that on its own. Yet the latter is what most of the states spend most of that money on.
    In Zacatecas, for example, 57% of the Fonregión money was used for repairing sidewalks and pot holes, while only 1.8% went to classroom improvement, teaching materials and other education-related needs.
    “How the money is distributed is relevant,” the UN report reads. “The greatest lag in these states is education. However, most of the resources are being used to construct, repair and maintain streets and highways.”
    It’s easy to see why the local authorities would behave this way. The benefits of improved education may be immediate for the kids who receive them, but long-term at best from a political point of view. On the other hand, let pot holes damage enough tires, and the constituency will let you know about it.
    What’s not as easy to understand is how they get away with it. Does it take United Nations action for the feds to find out that local yokels are playing fast and loose with federal funds?

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