As Mexico's schools go, so goes its economy: And the number of migrants headed north
by William McKenzie / Tuesday, July 24, 2007 / Dallas Morning News
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – At barely 10 in the morning, gangly, smiling school kids already were lugging desks onto a concrete slab in the barren playground of the Socorro Rivera elementary school.
Graduation day was at hand. There were desks to line up, dances to practice and a sound system to erect before Socorro Rivera's sixth-graders could walk across a makeshift stage, shake their principal's hand and collect their certificates.
When dusk settled in, a glorious red sunset nestled up against the surrounding mountains. About 500 parents and siblings filled the dusty lot. (That included "Snakeman," whose command of a desert-looking yellow snake crooked around his neck drew many eyes.)
That so many parents attended graduation was a good sign. Educators anywhere will tell you that committed parents are a modern key to a good school.
Socorro Rivera has many miles to go before it's a pipeline to Stanford. But it has grown the last five years from a campus of two cream-colored buildings to about 10 one-room, green, boxy buildings.
It's a work in progress, drawing on the labor and finances of Texas churches (including mine in Dallas) and the state of Chihuahua, which oversees Juárez's schools. But where once stood nothing in a colonias about a half-hour outside this border metropolis now stands a campus with a computer lab of 12 Internet-connected Dells. Across from the lab is a library of books, DVDs and a flat-screen TV that students use to learn.
Rich Mackey of Arrow Outreach, who coordinates the work of churches building the Socorro Rivera campus, says more and more parents come to graduation ceremonies each year. The number of sixth-graders going to the next level is increasing, too. Thirty-three of the little school's 34 graduates say they will attend Mexico's equivalent of middle school – up from 21 of 27 the year before, Mr. Mackey says.
Moving kids up the educational pipeline is Mexico's big challenge, and Americans have more than an academic interest in the outcome. As Mexico's schools go, so goes its economy. As its economy goes, so goes migration across the U.S. border.
In fact, now that conservatives and liberals alike have torpedoed immigration reform, the plight of Mexico's schools is even more important. If they're not producing enough workers to attract and generate better-paying jobs, Mexico will be left behind in the global economy. If that happens, expect Mexican immigrants to keep heading north searching for better jobs.
To get a better sense of how well this point is understood in Mexico, I visited Guillermo Narro Garza, who oversees Juárez's schools. A tall, eloquent professor, he readily admits that Juárez and the surrounding state of Chihuahua cannot grow better-paying jobs without good schools. For the city to attract an aerospace plant, say, it needs a ready workforce.
The challenge is steep.
•Education is compulsory in Mexico only through our equivalent of ninth grade. It's hard to get kids doing more than roofing and busing tables with that level of schooling.
•Unions strongly influence schools. For proof, see how striking teachers have shut down Mexico City's schools.
•Education spending can vary widely. Mr. Narro says Chihuahua can invest about half its budget in schools; poorer states spend as little as 5 percent.
Yes, the federal government picks up part of the slack. (There are both federal and state schools in Mexico.) But the plain truth is, Mexico needs a Marshall Plan for its education system, including American participation. It might smack of Yankee paternalism, but President Bush could make a mark on immigration before he leaves by holding a bilateral summit with Mexican President Felipe Calderón on the subject.
Mexico would have plenty to gain from a big-deal educational exchange. Competitors like India and China are pole vaulting from backwaters to economic engines. For every sign of progress like Socorro Rivera, there's the reality that Mexico is just behind. The progress just isn't deep enough, as Edwin Flores, a Dallas schools trustee educated in Mexico City, told me last week.
The "deepening" will require compulsory school the equivalent of high school, adequate investments nationwide and holding schools accountable. These reforms are essential to Mexico – and to us, if we hope to slow the flow of immigration.