MEXICO CITY -- When he was elected president six years ago, Felipe Calderon appointed a bright and energetic political operator to fix the country's wreck of a public education system, where teachers buy and sell their jobs and half the children drop out after junior high.
That politician was Josefina Vazquez Mota, who served as his loyal minister of education for 27 months -- before she was sacrificed by Mr. Calderon in an act of political expediency and crushed by her nemesis, Elba Esther Gordillo, the "president for life" of the national teachers union, one of the largest labor organizations in the world.
Ms. Vazquez Mota is running in the July 1 presidential election as the standard-bearer of Mr. Calderon's ruling party, the first viable female candidate in Mexico's modern history. But she is trailing, slipping to third place, according to the latest polls, still trying to convince voters that she and her center-right party will deliver real change.
Far removed from the media spotlight on the violence of the U.S.-backed war against the drug cartels in Mexico, the struggles of Mr. Calderon and Ms. Vazquez Mota to transform the nation's public education system show how a vision of a more modern Mexico continues to clash with an old Mexico beset by charges of corruption and cronyism.
In the past few days, teachers have been accused of stealing copies of a national exam in an effort to boost student scores. And teachers refusing to take exams to prove their basic competency abandoned their schools in protest, while Mr. Calderon proclaimed that "enough is enough" and pleaded with them to get back in the classroom.
"The education system is in deep crisis and is at risk of complete failure," said David Calderon (no relation to the president), leader of a reform group called Mexicanos Primero, or Mexicans First, which produced a documentary about the sad state of the schools called "De Panzazo," slang for "barely passing."
By most measures, Mexico's education system is an underachiever. The country is a member of the Group of 20 and boasts of the world's 14th-largest economy, but only a quarter of its children graduate from high school. Sixth-graders in Mexico get 562 hours of "instructional learning" a year. In South Korea, it's 1,195 hours, according to Mexicans First.
Mexico's performance is not about money. Twenty percent of the country's budget goes to education, about $30 billion a year. More than 90 percent goes to salaries -- negotiated by the teachers union, which dictates policy.
"It was -- and sadly still is -- a very corrupt system," said Carlos Ornelos, a specialist in education at the Autonomous Metropolitan University who was one of the first, in the 1990s, to expose the practice of teachers buying and selling their jobs.
An elementary school teaching post sells for as much as $20,000 in the resort city of Cancun, and a post in a rural village can be had for $2,000, Mr. Ornelas said.
Although the marketplace is now more discreet, the practice purportedly continues. The group Mexicans First estimates that 40 percent of the teaching jobs are still sold, or inherited, or exchanged for political or even sexual favors.
"It is a scandal," Mr. Ornelos said. "In the 2006 campaigns, Calderon was the only one talking about it. He called it a national embarrassment."
When Mr. Calderon appointed Ms. Vazquez Mota as secretary of public education in 2007, they wanted to push teachers to take exams in order to get a job and to receive pay raises.
At the center of any debate about education in Mexico looms Ms. Gordillo, whose 1.4 million union members may make or break political candidates. In 2005, she and the union created their own political party, called the New Alliance.
Hounded by charges that she has enriched herself at the public's expense, one critic called Ms. Gordillo "Jimmy Hoffa in a dress," after the late, infamous Teamsters union leader.
Ms. Gordillo is bigger than Hoffa was. For the past 23 years, Mexican presidents have come and gone promising to reform education, but she remains the ultimate wheeler-dealer, often described as the second-most powerful person in Mexico.
She declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post.
First Published June 11, 2012 12:00 AM