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.
Pena Nieto and the three major parties signed a Pact for Mexico last week with other education goals, including raising the level of Mexican students who complete middle school to 80 percent and the number who complete high school to 40 percent. High school only recently became mandatory in the country.
His proposal Monday would also extend learning hours in some 40,000 public schools.
The president said the change is crucial to make Mexico competitive in the new global technological market.
Jesus Zambrano, head of the rival Democratic Revolutionary Party who signed onto to Pena Nieto's accord, was widely quoted over the weekend saying it was designed to take power away from Gordillo, who is capable of delivering millions of votes and whose political support has been key to several presidents.
A pact she made with former President Felipe Calderon was considered the single factor that handed Calderon his 2006 victory in a very tight race.
She was elected to another six-year term as union leader in October. She was the only candidate and received not a single dissenting vote.
Gordillo has beaten back years of attacks from union dissidents, political foes and journalists who have seen her as a symbol of Mexico's corrupt, old-style politics. Rivals have accused her of corruption, misuse of union funds and even a murder, but prosecutors who investigated never brought a charge against her.
She was expelled from Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2006 for supporting other parties' candidates and the formation of her own New Alliance party.
Critics have accused her of amassing more than a dozen properties worth millions of dollars. She has acknowledged some of the wealth, saying part was inherited.
Education Secretary Emilio Chuayfett declined to interpret Gordillo's absence from the announcement.
"What we're clearly seeking, without specifying any certain people, is for the state to retake control of the education curriculum," ahe told reporters.