A few years ago, a group of American teachers’ unions launched a campaign whose slogan aimed to draw society’s approval: “if you think education is costly, try ignorance.”       I wonder what happens when ignorance starts with the government itself.

The challenges that the country is currently facing are enormous but so are the opportunities. In spite of this, for decades we have been unable to match one with the other and the result is that the problems pile up while solutions remain scarce. This takes place in the context of a changing world where the sources of opportunity, wealth and development are no longer the traditional ones. Education has become the centerpiece of a country’s development but we are still firmly focused on an industrial and agricultural economy that is yielding diminishing returns. The cost for the average Mexican is immense and rising.

All the relevant indicators show huge setbacks and obstacles that have become de facto walls: insurmountable obstacles to economic growth and wealth, but that also stand in the way for the advancement of the country as an organized society. Thus, we have before us fiscal and infrastructure problems, an inability -that at times seems almost genetic- for our politicians to agree on issues, and a police system unable to fulfill its mandate. All of these topics and issues are overwhelming but stand in weak contrast with the biggest adversity for the future: education

Education is the backbone of our problems for two reasons: first and foremost because what adds value in today’s economic system is the population’s creative talents and these are magnified and grow with education. The other reason is that our educational structure is a perfect microcosm of our political and even cultural reality. The Mexican educational world is characterized by an abusive union that paralyzes everything, a hyper bureaucratic ministry, a masked centralism where nobody takes action or governs and an enormous waste that has resulted from an ill-fated decentralization. The case and twilight of the educational system could be construed as laughable if it were not for the terrible damage it inflicts on the country’s future where every child is stuck without any chance of leading a prosperous life.

The current government attempted to change the way the Ministry of Education and the union related to each other. For years, the union leader had taken over the ministry and was used to bossing ministers. Presidents would bow and the rest would give in. One of them went to the extreme of traveling abroad to get direct instructions from her. The first step this administration took was to redefine that relationship: the educational agenda would be negotiated at the ministry, not at the presidential house, Los Pinos; and the relationship would be work-related (that is, employer-union) and substantive, centered on education, not on elections, strikes or demonstrations.

The next step consisted of negotiating a new scheme to manage the educational process that entailed a realignment of the incentives offered to teachers and students. The so- called (Alianza por la Calidad en la Educacion) Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) changed two key elements in the working relationship: in the first place it established that the hiring of new teachers would be done via competitive entrance exams, thereby destroying forever the sacrosanct practice of selling positions whereby new teachers would buy their tenure from a retiring one without any exam. Secondly, the ministry would hold yearly standardized tests and teachers would be paid according to the results, in other words, on the basis of a merit system, depending on student’s performance on these exams. In sum, the AQE attempted to link teachers’ salaries to children’s performance. A good teacher whose students passed his or her exam successfully could take home an annual bonus of up to 120,000 pesos  (approximately 9,500 USD). While the issue of what would happen to teachers who retired in the first years of implementing the AQE remained unsolved, all the teachers that were able to improve the student’s performance would have been rewarded with economic incentives.

The goal of these reforms was very simple: to bring down the barrier that the existing educational status quo represents for the country’s progress. Had it remained in place, the Alliance promised the possibility of advancing towards a genuine equality of opportunity for all children. Certainly, in a country with such an acute inequality, nobody could expect an overnight radical change, but changing the patterns and incentives that would guide teachers in the future no doubt constituted a way of improving and transforming the lives of children, especially the most disadvantaged.

Even though the union leadership negotiated and signed the AQE, very early on it started to back down, in part due to conflicts like the one in the state of Morelos, but more importantly so, because of the loss of union power that the Alliance inevitably entailed. It might have been the closeness of the midterm elections, but it is now clear that rather than pushing ahead, the president chose the siren’s songs and the promise of electoral support by the union, a premise that has always been doubtful.

Said and done: as predicted, the recent elections showed that the support of the teachers’ union made no difference for the ruling party: the PAN could hardly have done worse. In contrast to this, the union was able to free itself from the commitments acquired under the AQE and the government abandoned the project of educational reform. Beyond the politics involved in this decision, the Mexican economy will pay the consequences and the problems of inequity will only worsen.

When Secretary Josefina Vázquez Mota left the Ministry of Education, many interpretations and speculations were put forth. The passing of time confirms the hypothesis that the president chose the political and electoral relationship with the union over and above the transformation of the educational system, maybe the only project his government would have been able to leave behind. The evidence that the Ministry of Education is again under total union control is so unambiguous that we are left without alternative interpretations. Pathetic.

In politics, it is results, as opposed to intentions, that matter. The result in education is that we are back under the reigns of union control, and Mexico’s children will now have to wait a few more decades before they are able to have the opportunities they deserve and that are the government’s responsibility. Some things are measured by what is accomplished. This one will have to be measured by what could have been.