By Alexandra Alper and Lizbeth Diaz
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The biggest shake-up in decades of Mexico's failing school system aims to tame a powerful teachers' union, lift woefully poor standards and help boost economic growth.
The overhaul, if successful, will wrest oversight of teacher hiring and competency exams away from a powerful union, and make all promotions based on merit.
It would also help address some of the scams that are rife in Mexico's public education system. Some teachers often skip class themselves, while final year students doing social service are sent in as substitutes for teachers who take jobs within the union and continue to receive their wages.
Teaching positions can be passed down through families even in the absence of qualifications, or are simply sold under the table or bartered for cars or other assets.
A new law, signed by President Enrique Pena Nieto on Monday, aims to clean up the mess and is one of a wider raft of economic reforms that he is seeking to push through.
"Our children deserve responsible, trained teachers," Pena Nieto said. "The reform contains clear rules so that professional merit is the only way to become, remain and advance as a teacher."
But as with government efforts to push through key reforms in telecoms, energy and the tax system, the devil is in the details.
The majority of Mexico's state legislatures have approved the reform, but it leaves some important issues up in the air. It does not specify who will oversee the policing of teaching standards, nor does it say how teachers will be assessed.
Although lawmakers approved it two months ago and Pena Nieto signed it on Monday, the education law will not have an impact until a separate implementing law is drawn up and passed by lawmakers over the next six months.
That gives Mexico's biggest teacher's union, the National Union of Education Workers, and its combative leader, Elba Esther Gordillo, a window to lobby against changes that would weaken its power.
Ricardo Raphael, an expert at the Center for Investigation and Economic Teaching (CIDE) institute, said the reform would be doomed without strong accompanying regulatory measures.
"The key is not to buckle to the powers of the union, whose interests are different from advancing education," he said.
The stakes are high. Mexico ranks among the weakest countries in student achievement in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, despite dedicating more than a fifth of its budget to education.
Economists say that if the reform is properly implemented, improved standards that reduce the number of poorly educated people in the workforce could help boost long-term growth in Latin America's No. 2 economy.
TEACHING JOBS FOR SALE
For long tied to Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and returned to power last year, the main teachers' union clenched a key lever of power in 1992 when it effectively gained control of the teacher hiring process.
That gave union leaders the ability to dole out teaching posts for life in exchange for money, favors and votes.
One secondary school teacher who did not want to be named said she paid 300,000 pesos ($23,400) for her life-long position to a retiring teacher, who she says then paid the union.
"Either the (government) bureaucracy sells them, or my bureaucracy sells them ... it's possible it happens and we combat it, I know we are not perfect," Gordillo said last month. She insists her union will not allow teachers to be fired and is lobbying to keep a strong say in how performance is measured.
Gordillo has for long been a powerful figure in Mexican politics and once led the PRI in the lower house Chamber of Deputies, but she broke with party leaders before the 2006 presidential election and founded the small New Alliance Party.
According to a 2009 study by Mexicanos Primero, a private group that has pushed for education reform, 22,000 union employees who do not teach draw a combined $130 million from state coffers annually.
The results of a system where teaching skills rank low on the list of hiring criteria is that half of 15-year-olds struggle to do basic math, the highest proportion among OECD countries. Some 40 percent fall below proficiency when assessed on reading as well.
"My mother took me out of public school simply because of missed classes. We had teachers who wouldn't turn up most of the year because they had union jobs," said 16-year-old high school student Omar Castellano.
"At first you think it's a good thing, and are even happy there were no classes, but then when it's exam time, you don't know anything."
A major challenge for the government as it tries to improve the education system will be winning over teachers, some of whom have balked at the prospect of tighter assessment standards.
"It is repression," Francisco Benitez, a 24-year-old primary school teacher, said of the reform as he handed out flyers at a protest organized by a rival teachers' union in Mexico City.
"They are starting to chase us out of our jobs, people who have been teaching for many years and are about to retire. Their workers' rights are being violated."
(Editing by Simon Gardner, Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham)