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Educators Mull Potential NAFTA Impact on Schools

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As far back as 1981, Gene Brust was already making connections on the other side of the United States-Mexico border, which lies three miles from his office.

Mr. Brust, the superintendent of Arizona's Palominas school district, sent 40 students to spend three days that year living and attending school in the Mexican town of Arizbe.

While his efforts began long before the North American Free Trade Agreement was drafted, Mr. Brust hopes he has helped prepare his students for its repercussions. If NAFTA is approved, other educators may find themselves following his lead.

The House is expected to vote next week on NAFTA, which would remove trade barriers between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

While the pact includes no education provisions, schools may feel its effects as they cope with new immigration patterns, alter vocational programs to meet new workplace demands, and try to coordinate curricula and procedures to allow for greater transferability between schools in the United States and Mexico.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association oppose NAFTA, following the lead of most organized-labor groups. Labor leaders fear that NAFTA would accelerate the movement of jobs out of the United States, a shift the teachers' unions argue could erode the property-tax base that foots much of the bill for public education.

"I don't see getting around the fact that there will be dislocation from local communities. Anything that makes it more difficult for schools to provide services ... is something we would oppose,'' said Michael D. Edwards, an N.E.A. lobbyist.

If NAFTA works as intended, higher Mexican wages resulting from greater prosperity would, in theory, reduce illegal immigration to the United States over the long term. But most observers agree that the pact would likely spur immigration from Mexico in the short run--and increase the number of immigrant children, most of them non-English-speaking, that U.S. schools must cope with.

Mary Jo Marion, a trade-policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, said that more Mexicans may indeed cross the border, and that they may choose to settle in "nonconventional places.''

New Educational Demands

James J. Lyons, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, said the need for proficiency in multiple languages would grow under NAFTA, as would Mexican students' demand for an "American'' education, whether or not they move across the border.

Both he and Rita Esquivel, a former director of the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, said NAFTA would be a spur not only to teaching Spanish-speaking students English, but also to teaching monolingual English-speakers Spanish and French to take advantage of the three countries' closer relations.

Anthony P. Carnevale, the chief economist for the American Society for Training and Development and the chairman of the National Commission for Employment Policy, predicted that NAFTA would accelerate the replacement of low-skill U.S. jobs with ones requiring more education, especially technical education.

"In the end, NAFTA is probably good news for young people in the United States, and schools will respond, I have every faith, by producing those people,'' Mr. Carnevale said.

At the federal level, education officials from the United States and Mexico already have signed a series of cooperative agreements. In 1991, federal officials and educators from both countries met for two days in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (See Education Week, Oct. 16, 1991.)

More recently, a commission created by the State Department has facilitated talks between education officials from both countries. In addition, four American assistant secretaries of education attended a two-day meeting in Mexico City last month. Mexican officials will travel to Washington next spring, said Stewart Tinsman, the director of international and territorial services in the Education Department's office of intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

But critics say these efforts have not been sufficient, and border educators who attended the 1991 conference complained that little attention was paid to their practical problems.

Macario Saldate, the director of the Mexican-American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona's Tucson campus, said the Education Department's efforts at forging linkages with Mexico were "useful for anecdotal information, but lacked any kind of systemic analysis.''

Mr. Saldate helped organize a symposium last spring on NAFTA's educational implications. (See Education Week, April 14, 1993.)

Forging Ties

Eugene E. Garcia, the director of OBEMLA, predicted that NAFTA would bring schools far from the border into talks on teacher exchanges and joint training. "Preparing students for the workforce of the 21st century is very much on ... our minds,'' he said.

Most educators agreed that NAFTA would prod more districts to increase ties with their Mexican counterparts.

For Roberto Moreno, the superintendent of the Calexico, Calif., schools, forging those ties is a key part of managing his district, where 99 percent of the students are Hispanic.

Mr. Moreno has his dry cleaning done, eats Chinese food, and gets his hair cut across the border in Mexicali, a city of about one million.

Trends that experts say would likely spread under NAFTA already have manifested themselves in Mr. Moreno's 22,000-person community, with companies like Wal-Mart and Toys 'R Us setting up shop in an area with 25 percent unemployment.

The district opened a new junior high school last month and plans to open a new elementary school soon.

"That'll just keep our heads above water,'' Mr. Moreno said, adding that a local developer told him Calexico's population could grow 10 percent over the next five years.

"Our underlying, unspoken thoughts were that these kids would start in Calexico and then move away,'' Mr. Moreno said. "Now it's likely we're going to want to send our kids to be engineers and technical experts or trade lawyers ... and then return to our community to apply those skills that NAFTA will demand.''

He has spoken with educators in the Mexican state of Baja California Norte about streamlining student records to allow for more fluidity across the border. He has also spoken with athletic officials about allowing his football teams to play in Mexico.

Similar exchanges have been launched by state officials and local educators in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas.

For example, Texas and New Mexico last month signed a resolution "recognizing the hemispheric roles upon which their respective states are about to embark.''

Officials at the Texas Education Agency said they have discussed the possibility of a binational diploma with Mexican officials.

And district officials in Los Angeles and Chicago recently signed agreements to recruit Mexican bilingual teachers and purchase Spanish-language textbooks from Mexico.

The "Hands Across the Border'' program Mr. Brust launched in Palominas, meanwhile, is now run by a foundation, which each year provides cultural and educational experiences for over 4,000 students from Mexico, the United States, and Canada.

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