Education as Telenovela

April 14, 2010

In January and February, the Guatemalan teachers’ union called a strike. Protesting late pay and poor working conditions, the union succeeded in closing schools and – when teachers flooded in from rural areas- paralyzing the capital. One morning I couldn’t figure out why there why there wasn’t any traffic on the periférico, the highway that loops the city and is continually tapado on weekday mornings. That’s because hundreds of teachers were marching down it, straight into the historical center, to present their demands.

Perhaps unexpectedly, in some communities the strike galvanized opposition from parents furious about the very, very poor quality of the Guatemalan education system. The refusal of teachers to hold classes was seen not as a legitimate form of political protest but rather as the latest iteration of a long standing problem: excessive teacher absences. (One 2003 study found that in 60 rural schools, classes were only offered 110 out of the 140 “official” school days.) The coordinator of my project is the head of the parent organization in his community in the largely indigenous department of Sololá, where for the first time parents showed up to meetings, massed to demand the reopening of the school and reported grievances against individual teachers.

It’s hard to know who to support. Teachers were actively protesting the Guatemalan state’s profound lack of investment in education, while parents were highlighting the failure of both state institutions and local authorities to take responsibility for the future of their children. Both were right, and the unprecedented engagement of citizens in a public debate about the state of education augurs well for the country’s future. But once again teachers have become symbolic of the failure of an entire public system.

South of (our) border, the parent/teacher conflict has taken an especially nasty turn. The North American Council on Latin America’s current report includes a fascinating article about the consequences of the coup for education politics in Honduras. (Even more remarkable considering that NACLA usually vaguely annoys me: like many other leftist publications, NACLA really likes the word “neoliberal.” TOTAL ASIDE but, leftists, please do yourselves a favor and STOP USING THE WORD NEOLIBERAL. You and a bunch of academic economists are the only ones who know what you are talking about, and you aren’t going to convince them anyway. It’s like non-profits with the word “impact,” but I better not get started on that because then this will no longer be a post about teachers’ unions.)

In any case, you can’t read the article online, but owing to the brilliance of being friends with journalists (always make friends with journalists) I have skillfully (read: totally accidentally) obtained a copy. After Zelaya was overthrown, teachers’ unions immediately went on strike, demanding his return. Micheletti’s turned a challenge into an opportunity, attacking the already unpopular unions in an attempt to neutralize the opposition. And when three new major parent organizations were formed to demand an end to the strike, the government responded with glee, proposing the formation of a national parent organization while pro-coup candidates signed a pact pledging to increase parental participation in schools. Meanwhile, the teachers’ unions formed the organizational backbone- and possibly even provided the bank- for the nascent resistance movement.

Yet the parents insisted that they were apolitical and were only interested in guaranteeing their children’s right to education, while teachers seemed to demand the return of Zelaya not only to defend democracy, but also to protect recently passed increases in pay. Like in the United States, many parents and reformers see teachers’ unions simply as self-interested organizations unconcerned with the student progress.

It would seem that when politics map onto education, the results can be explosive.

I myself am somewhat weary of the debate about teachers unions in the United States. Unions sometimes play an important role in reform, and are very necessary to ensure workplace protection. In Latin America, it seems to me that they are the only political organizations that have the potential to challenge the root of the problem: lack of public investment and a deeply-flawed tax system. Interestingly, the aforementioned coordinator, who in the midst of the strike described teachers’ refusal to attend as a violation of children’s human right to education, explained to me later that the real problem was not the union itself, but the union’s leadership. They are un-interested, he said, in rooting out the inequality that the public school system makes manifest.

So, how, you might ask, do we go about transforming unions? Give me another Fulbright, and I’ll get busy.

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