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Mexico leader proposes sweeping education reform

MEXICO CITY -- President Enrique Pena Nieto is proposing sweeping reforms to a public education system widely seen as moribund, taking on an iron-fisted union leader who is considered the country's most powerful woman and the main obstacle to change.

Flanked by the leaders of Mexico's three major political parties, Pena Nieto said Monday that he would send the initiative to Congress within hours to create a professional system for hiring, evaluating and promoting teachers without the “discretionary criteria” currently used in a system where teaching positions are often bought or inherited.

The plan, with multi-party support, moves much of the control of the public education system to the federal government from the 1.5 million-member National Union of Education Workers, led for 23 years by union president Elba Esther Gordillo, who under current law hires and fires teachers and has been accused of using union funds as her personal pocket book.

The proposal requires constitutional reform, meaning it would have to be ratified by Congress and at least 16 of Mexico's 31 states.

“It's time to open the door for the great educators of our country,” Pena Nieto said. “The reform would give constitutional status to the National Institute for the Evaluation of Education and give it autonomy.”

It was Pena Nieto's first major proposal since taking office Dec. 1 and is considered a political blow to Gordillo, who has played the role of kingmaker with many Mexican politicians.

She was conspicuously absent from the public announcement and did not respond immediately to an Associated Press request for an interview.

If it passes, it would be “the most important institutional change in the education system since the union was formed in 1943,” said Javier Romero, education expert and researcher at the Autonomous Metropolitan University. It would give teachers educational incentives to do their jobs rather than political ones, he said.

The proposal would also establish a federal census of education data. Because the union controls the education system, no one knows exactly how many schools, teachers or students exist. The payroll is believed to have thousands of phantom teachers and once included the leader of a major drug cartel in the western state of Michoacan, who had last been in the classroom a decade earlier. The state later canceled his teacher checks.

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Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto speaks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Los Pinos presidential residence in Mexico City, Monday, Dec. 10. (AP)

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