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Dark Classrooms, Teacher Protests Spell Troubled Schools

June 6, 1996

TLAPALA, Mexico (AP) _ In the dark, drafty classrooms of Emiliano Zapata Middle School, broken windows go unfixed and burnt-out light bulbs unreplaced. Parents take up collections for chalk. Teachers pay for photocopies. Students clean the bathrooms.

The troubles at this school, and a wave of teacher protests nationwide, underscore growing strains on an education system serving more than 25 million students.

Thousands of teachers marched in the capital Wednesday demanding higher pay and the resignation of a mayor they say has unjustly repressed the protests that have clogged Mexico City for four weeks.

Improving public schools is critical for President Ernesto Zedillo, who has vowed to raise education standards so Mexican workers can better compete in the global marketplace.

But the problems he faces are evident in Tlapala, a town of 3,000 located 25 miles southeast of downtown Mexico City in the shadow of two snow-capped volcanoes.

The 70-student junior high, named for a famous revolutionary general, has shut several times this year as its four teachers have joined thousands of peers protesting in the capital.

``Teachers who don’t have enough to eat, who have deep economic problems, can’t serve students as they should,″ said Susana Diaz Reyes, 29, a teacher for 10 years.

Diaz makes about $300 a month _ nearly twice what many of Mexico’s 900,000 unionized teachers make. But her pay is still less than half the U.S. minimum wage.

``How can you have good education for our kids when you see teachers receiving such a miserable salary?″ asked federal Congressman Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. ``The country is not investing in its manpower. This is the single most important problem in Mexico.″

Officials have met repeatedly with teachers demanding 100 percent raises _ quadruple the roughly 22-percent increases the government granted this year. But the teachers have won virtually no concessions.

``The government has offered as much as it can,″ said Education Secretary Miguel Limon Rojas, after one of the almost-daily demonstrations in the capital turned violent.

At least 40 people were injured May 23 in a clash with riot police.

The Education Ministry has been blockaded for most of May and early June by teachers from the Pacific states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

The controversy has been particularly stinging for Zedillo, a former education secretary who entered office in December 1994 with plans to better train the youth of this nation of 91.1 million people.

But the president has been shackled by a severe recession. Federal education spending in proportion to gross domestic product has fallen over two years and lags behind international norms.

Teachers concede they have little chance of doubling their pay, but want the government to acknowledge that their earning power has plummeted. Inflation reached 52 percent in 1995 and is still rising.

The government says it has established 200 teacher training centers, outfitted with computers, and plans 300 more by the end of 1997.

Distribution of free breakfasts has more than doubled, up to 2.6 million daily. Officials boast that elementary schools got all their textbooks by the opening of this school year, a first.

But Emiliano Zapata still has serious problems. The school’s maintenance money has run out. The science lab goes unused for lack of microscopes, chemicals and petri dishes.

In Diaz’s classroom, only one of eight light fixtures works. She teaches bundled in an overcoat to shield herself from the mountain chill coming through two empty window frames.

``And we’re one of the best-kept schools in this area,″ said Principal Freddy Ocampo. A union leader, he got a temporary replacement in March because he was so busy with labor issues.

There is no one to teach English, which students are eager to learn. With textbooks in short supply, teachers rely heavily on videotapes produced by the Education Ministry.

The pupils and their families appear to support the teachers. A donated can of tuna fish sat Tuesday on Diaz’s desk _ meant for protesters in Mexico City _ and one student’s grandmother brought her a clay bowl.

``We know they deserve a raise,″ said Francisca Ramirez, a 13-year-old honor student in green uniform. Classmate Tania Rosales added, ``Yes, because they support us.″

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