Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Mexico’s education ‘abuse-meter’: a great idea!

A Mexican group advocating for better education standards has done something that should be copied throughout Latin America — it erected an “abuse-meter” in one of Mexico City’s busiest avenues to inform passersby how much money from the country’s education budget is unaccounted for, or is being stolen, every minute.

It’s a great idea, because Mexico and several other Latin American countries have some of the world’s biggest education budgets, but are nevertheless in the last places of international student performance rankings.

According to World Bank figures, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina spend between 5.2 and 6.3 percent of their respective gross domestic products on education, much more than China or Singapore. But while student performance in Latin American countries has fallen in standardized international tests, that of China and Singapore has improved.

Mexico, Brazil and Argentina rank near the bottom of the list of 65 countries that participate in the international PISA test of 15 year old students’ academic abilities, while China and Singapore rank consistently among the world’s top three countries in these student tests.

What are Latin American countries doing with their rising education budgets? Mexicanos Primero, the Mexican education advocacy group that placed the so-called “abuse-meter” electronic dashboard along Mexico City’s Periférico Sur avenue, wants to put public pressure on the government to answer that question.

A study of Mexico’s census figures by Mexicanos Primero shows that nearly $3 billion from the country’s education budget are unaccounted for every year. The electronic “abuse-meter” dashboard shows motorists how much of the unaccounted money is disbursed by the government every day, hour and minute.

Claudio X. Gonzalez, president of Mexicanos Primero, told me that the unaccounted funds go to pay for the salaries of 298,000 people — or 13 percent of the country’s elementary and high school teachers — who are listed as teachers in public records, but who don’t actually teach. In many cases, they are beneficiaries of political subsidies, or hold administrative jobs at teachers unions.

“The government and we, as citizens, are financing the enemy, because we are paying the salaries of the political operatives of teachers’ union bosses who are protesting on the streets to block education reforms,” Gonzalez told me.

“We need to free those $3 billion in irregular or illegal funds, and spend them to improve our schools’ infrastructure, train our teachers and principals, and give scholarships to our young people,” he added.

Asked about the government’s reaction to the “abuse-meter,” Gonzalez told me that officials have remained mum, “which is unfortunate, but on the other hand also shows that they are not disputing our figures. On the contrary, they are validating them, because they know they are accurate.”

Of the 298,000 people who receive teachers’ salaries without teaching in any school, 114,998 are cashing the checks of teachers who have either died or have retired, and 113,259 are people who receive checks for allegedly teaching at schools where nobody knows their name.

Another 70,000 are “commissioned” teachers or “aviators,” terms that refer to people who in most cases are “on loan” to work in administrative or political jobs at teachers unions, Mexicanos Primero says.

The “abuse-meter” will keep running on Mexico City’s Periférico avenue for one month. After that, it will continue ticking at the Website, the group says.

As funny as it may seem, Mexico is lucky, because at least it has a non-governmental civic group that is keeping track of these unaccounted funds. Many other Latin American countries have no such independent groups that look into government education spending.

In Argentina, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner boasts that her government increased education spending to record levels, but education levels have plummeted.

While Argentina raised its education spending from 4.6 percent to 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product over the past decade, the country’s percentage of students who flunked the international PISA reading comprehension test soared from 44 percent to 52 percent over the same period, a study by Argentina’s IDESA think tanks shows.

Comparatively, Canada reduced its education spending as a percentage of its economy from 5.6 percent to 5 percent over the past decade, while keeping its much better PISA test results intact, the study says.

My opinion: It would be great if citizens’ groups in every Latin American country placed an “abuse-meter” in their capitals’ busiest intersection. It would serve as a constant reminder of how much of taxpayers’ money disappears into murky education budgets with virtually no accountability, while education standards keep falling. Well done, Mexicanos Primero!