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Peru: teachers and social justice

2017 Teachers' strikes mirrored wider social discontent


A 2017 reform aiming to raise standards among school teachers met strong resistance and chimed with wider social discontents that secured victory in the 2021 presidential election for teacher’s leader Pedro Castillo. This article was written by Macarena Martínez for LAB partner Latin American Foundation for the Future.

Main image: FotoGEC

When more than 238,000 Peruvian teachers went on strike in 2017, disrupting the education of over one million students for more than 60 days, they were demanding four things from the Government: better salaries, back pay owing from a previous settlement, an increase in the budget for the education sector and repeal of the Ley de Reforma Magisterial (LRM, Teaching Reform Law). There is substantial evidence to support all these claims.

The Teacher Reform Law and the teachers’ strike of 2017. Video: Maestros Luchando 27 August 2017

Better salaries

The average salary of public teachers in Peru started to decrease in the 1990’s due to the high supply of teachers. It was estimated that in 2019, Peruvian teachers earned on average between 10 and 50 per cent less than similar professionals in other Latin American countries. With low salaries, it is difficult to attract the talent needed to improve the quality of education, so a salary raise not only sounds fair but could have a positive effect on overall educational outcomes.

Payment of social debt

In December 1984 law granted a bonus to teachers working in frontier zones, the rainforest, rural areas or places of exceptional altitude in Peru. This law, together with its 1990 amendment, was repealed in 2012 when the Ley de Reforma Magisterial (LRM, Teacher Reform Law) was adopted. Nevertheless, in the 28-year period while the law was valid, the Government failed to make the corresponding payments to teachers, generating a ‘social debt’, recognised by the courts. Teachers are in a firm position to ask for this debt to be paid.

Increase in budget for education

The budget for education has been increasing in recent years; it more than doubled from 14bn PEN in 2009 to 29bn PEN in 2017. With this increase in spending came a significant improvement in the indicators of educational reach and student performance. However, there are still many issues with Peru’s education system which could be addressed by a further increase in budget.

Repeal of the LRM

In 2012, the Peruvian government introduced the Ley de Reforma Magisterial (LRM or Teacher Reform Law) which established a single labour regime for teachers in Peru’s public sector, with the aim of offering them better benefits and professional development opportunities. Prior to this, teachers were subject to a variety of different career frameworks and pay systems.

The LRM sought to simplify this by providing one clear framework which detailed the potential vertical and horizontal career paths and the evaluation procedures which teachers would be required to undergo. The reform was triggered by the results of teacher evaluations which began in 2002 and showed very low performance levels—in 2007, 95 per cent of Peru’s some 183,000 teachers failed their evaluations. The LRM is meant to incentivise teachers to receive professional training and improve their performance.

The set of actions and regulations established by the LRM might appear fair and appropriate, but the union claims that the law is market-oriented and poses a threat to teacher’s rights. As yet they haven’t been able to establish a strong case to support this claim .

So, what might explain teachers’ opposition to the LRM?

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One narrative suggests that the Teacher’s Union just wanted to play an obstructive role and challenge the State. On 3 August 2017, Education Minister Marilu Martens and the president of the Council of Ministers met with regional governments to discuss the issues raised by the teachers during their demonstrations.

After the meeting, the government agreed to raise salaries and offered to roll out a training programme for teachers before the Teacher Performance Evaluation was due. Additionally, a specific budget was to be assigned to pay off the ‘social debt’.

Teachers in Lima join the strike called by teachers’ union SUTEP. Video: Buenos Días Peru, 11 August 2017

A few days later, teachers from Cusco, Lima, Pasco and Lambayeque agreed to suspend their demonstrations. However, another section of the union remained unsatisfied as the proposed compromise did not address their demand for repeal of the LRM. This section was led by Pedro Castillo – a former primary school teacher, who went on to stand as the underdog candidate in the nation’s presidential elections in 2021 and won by a narrow margin over the right-wing candidate Keiko Fujimori.

Career choice or necessity

In 2017, many thought that Castillo’s backers among the teachers were simply being obstructive; it was no secret at the time that the opposition was irritated at losing the presidential election and were seizing every chance to ruin the reputation of the elected government.

Another view was that they were trying to protect the jobs of all those under-performing teachers, placing their individual interests above the progress of the education system. However, a closer look at the social background of Peru’s teachers suggests alternative explanations for the origins of the strikes.

The key finding of a study by Eguren and Belaunde No era vocación, era necesidad. Motivaciones para ser docente en el Perú was that a high percentage of teachers chose this career path because it was the only or most effective way to satisfy their future economic needs, not because it was their chosen vocation.

Many of the teachers interviewed claimed to have ended up in in education because ‘they couldn’t access other professions, whether it was due to the limited offer of educational institutions in their area, the economic difficulties or inability to succeed in the entry exams for other degrees’.

Thus, a significant proportion of Peru’s current teaching force is made up of citizens who feel ignored by a State which has not provided them with sufficient opportunities; citizens who have experienced the injustice of inequality. The LRM therefore allows the Peruvian government to penalise teachers for a failure for which the government themselves are largely responsible.

The LRM was based on the Government’s vision of the ‘ideal’ teacher—a well-educated, high-performing individual with a genuine desire to be a teacher. It loses sight of the motivations and experiences of the real teachers who find themselves in the classrooms of Peruvian public schools today – those like Pedro Castillo, a boy born to illiterate parents in a small town in Peru, who grew up to reject the State that forgot him.

Appeal to the ‘nobodies’

That explains why Castillo  not only represents over a hundred thousand teachers in Peru, but also appeals to all those ‘nobodies’ who have been systematically left out by public policies and economic development too.

Socialist Teacher Takes Lead in Peruvian Election as Nation Reels from Pandemic & Political Crisis. Video: DemocracyNow, 8 June 2021

We will only be able to understand the outcome of the Peruvian Presidential Elections of 2021 once we trace the origins of the sense of injustice that united a decisive proportion of the electorate against the establishment.

There is an urgent need for change in Peru. Until economic growth is reflected in the improved provision of public goods and services for Peruvians, feelings of discontent will continue to prevail. Castillo claims that he seeks to build a fair, free and inclusive Peru, but will he have the capacity to achieve the change that is needed? Or could it be that his vision, heavily shaped by his experience of injustice, will end up plunging us into misery? There are difficult times ahead for Peru, but it is at times like these that it is vital to look at our history, to understand its influence on our present and to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.