MEXICO CITY — President Enrique Pena Nieto used his first state-of-the-nation address Monday to push an aggressive reform agenda that seemed to be on the ropes last week, as protesting teachers attempted to block his plan for mandatory evaluations.
Pena Nieto opened the speech praising a midnight vote by the lower house of Congress to set up a competitive examination system for hiring teachers and to require them to pass regular evaluations in order to remain in the classroom.
The education bill still must be approved by the Senate, and protesting teachers who blocked Mexico City's main freeway and access to its airport last week continue to occupy the capital's main plaza.
"Resistance is a natural consequence when you are pushing a transformation," he said of the protesters, who also caused him to change the date and location of his speech. "Our dilemma had been whether to continue to stagnate or to allow the state to recover the leadership and transform and improve the quality of education."
Touting accomplishments in other fields, Pena Nieto reported a significant drop in murders and drug-related killings since he took office, though many doubt those statistics. He said the government had captured 65 of 122 most-wanted criminals in the last nine months, though that list has never been made public.
And he garnered applause with a stern message to the many vigilante groups that have taken up arms against drug cartels and legal authorities alike: "We will not tolerate anyone who tries to mete out justice through their own means."
Pena Nieto came to office with a lot of swagger and an aggressive agenda, with many saying his Institutional Revolutionary Party, for all its faults, knew how to govern. He promised to make Mexico an economic powerhouse, overcoming its image as a violence-torn land overrun by drug traffickers.
He passed radical reforms for education and telecommunications, but the battle over just how the education law will be applied has threatened to undermine his plans to overhaul the tax system and energy sector.
Both are controversial. Allowing greater private involvement to revitalize the moribund state-owned oil company has run into opposition from nationalists. And many oppose a plan for adding sales taxes on food and medicine.
With economic growth projections cut nearly in half and streets clogged with anti-reform protesters, some questioned if Pena Nieto had taken on too much at once.
"Mexico has a great opportunity to make fundamental, structural changes to take advantage of its riches and potential," he responded in the speech. "For that reason, the government has decided to take on multiple challenges at the same time."
He put a positive spin on one of the biggest setbacks of his administration so far: a drop in projections for GDP growth this year to 1.8 percent from an earlier forecast of 3.1 percent.
Pena Nieto called the Mexican economy "stable, competitive and open to the rest of the world," adding, "This should reflect itself in the pockets of all Mexicans."
The education bill calls for mandatory assessment of teachers to maintain their jobs and to receive promotions. Teachers can inherit their positions under the current system.
Political scientist Luis Miguel Perez called passage of the measure a "respite" for the Pena Nieto government.
"They're discovering that there's much bigger resistance then they anticipated," said Perez of the Technological Institute of Monterrey. "There are forces much more active than they imagined."
The bill approved by the House of Deputies is a slightly weakened version of Pena Nieto's proposal, which sought to reassert government control over an education system where hiring and promotion was almost entirely in the hands of teachers unions.
The reform sets up a competitive examination system for hiring and requires teachers to pass regular evaluations in order to remain in the classroom.
"We categorically reject this (state-of-the-nation) report, which is full of lies and deceit and that contains a great deal of authoritarianism," said Juan Melchor Roman, a teacher from the western state of Michoacan, who has been camping out along with thousands of other teachers in the city's main square since last two weeks.
Melchor Roman said they plan to continue protesting the bill, which is expected to be voted on by the Senate on Tuesday.
But last-minute concessions to a dissident teachers union reserves new positions for graduates of union-controlled teacher training schools for the next two years and allows teachers who fail evaluations to file appeals through the existing civil service system.
The government proposal would have put the test-based hiring system in place immediately, and not allowed appeals after repeated failures of teacher evaluations.
Independent education advocates praised the passage of the proposal as a good first step after decades of union control of the schools, but said the measure didn't go far enough to establish a rigorous nationwide system of teacher training and promotion.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.