MEXICO CITY - Mexico's highly anticipated education overhaul program - intended to weed out poorly performing teachers, establish professional hiring standards and weaken the powerful teachers' union - is buckling under the tried-and-true tactic of huge street protests, throwing the heart of the capital into chaos.
A radical teachers' group mobilized thousands of members in Mexico City last week, chasing lawmakers from their chambers, occupying the city's historic central square, blocking access to hotels and the international airport, and threatening to bring an already congested city to a halt in the coming days.
These mobilizations, analysts said, suggest how difficult it may be for President Enrique Peña Nieto to get through this and other changes he has pushed since taking office in December, including an energy and telecommunications overhaul deemed vital to revving up the economy.
Already, lawmakers, who passed the principal outlines of the education program in December and are negotiating additional legislation needed to carry it out, have shelved one of the bill's most vital provisions, an evaluation requirement aimed at halting the common practice of buying and selling teaching jobs and establishing mechanisms to fire poorly performing instructors.
"What has happened is very grave," said Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst at the Colegio de México. "A kidnapped city and a dismantled reform."
Mr. Peña Nieto had focused on the public education system because he and analysts have called it vital to moving more people into the middle class.
Mexico ranks last in standardized test scores among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Teachers buy, sell or inherit positions as though they were family heirlooms. Removing poorly performing teachers is virtually impossible, even over allegations of sexual or substance abuse.
But this year began with hope that change was coming.
The main political parties agreed to work together to pass the overhaul. In February, the seemingly untouchable leader of the powerful main teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, was ousted from her post and jailed on suspicion of embezzlement, a rare rebuke to powerful figures here.
But by April, members of a small but militant faction of the union began pushing back with violent protests in Guerrero State, including the shutdown of the highway connecting the tourist hub of Acapulco to Mexico City. Demonstrators then paralyzed parts of Oaxaca and Michoacán States, in the south and west.
Last week, they descended on Mexico City, where they turned the central square into a tent city, forcing the Mexico City Marathon, scheduled for Sunday, to be rerouted. And they blockaded the two buildings belonging to the chambers of Congress, forcing the legislature to meet at a convention center. "The president of the country, the secretary of education, they are not putting up a fight for the reform," said Edna Jaime, director of México Evalúa, a public policy research group. "They threw it out and left it alone."
Ms. Jaime said she believed the federal and state governments were afraid of heightening the conflict with a direct confrontation.
On Friday, Mr. Peña Nieto defended the proposal, saying that teachers who objected to the changes misunderstood them.
"The education reform will give them opportunities that they don't have today," he said. "The reform benefits Mexico's teachers because it is designed to give them job stability, clear rules and certainty for ascending within the national education system."
Much of the rancor from the teachers has focused on evaluations. The new law would make them obligatory every four years. Teachers who failed an evaluation could try again a year later, and again a year after that. After failing three times, tenured teachers would be moved to administrative positions while newer teachers would be fired.
"This evaluation is disguised to start firing our peers," said Floriberto Alejo, 50, a teacher who came from Oaxaca State on Monday.
Mr. Alejo said the proposed overhaul poses a risk to teachers' seniority. "The education reform, full of tricks, is on track to privatize education." He said the change intends to fire many teachers and make it harder for parents to find fully staffed public schools, therefore forcing them to send their children to private ones.
Last week, Congress stripped that requirement from the bill, saying it would be taken up at a later date.
"If this content of the law is eliminated in order to avoid conflict, the reform will be practically inconclusive and have no effect," said Sergio Cárdenas, an education expert at CIDE, a Mexico City research university.
By Friday, the city ground to a near standstill. Getting around the city, in some places, took two to three times as long as usual.
The country's main airline, Aeroméxico, waived all change fees for passengers who missed their flights, while television stations showed alternate routes to the airport and other neighborhoods.
"This is the expression of a country that is drowning in violence," said Mr. Aguayo, the political analyst. "There is no ability to impose democratic rules." -------------------------------- SIDEBAR PHOTO: Teachers blocked access to a government building in Mexico City on Thursday. The city's central square was also occupied. Omar Torres/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images -------------------------------- A version of this article appears in print on August 25, 2013, on page A10 of the New York edition with the headline: Fighting Education Overhaul, Thousands of Teachers Disrupt Mexico City. *********************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University 625 Wham Drive Mail Code 4610 Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org