(AP) President Enrique Pena Nieto used much of his first state-of-the-nation address on Monday to celebrate victory in education reform that had threatened to derail the legislative agenda he has pushed since taking office Dec. 1.
Pena Nieto praised the passage of mandatory teacher evaluations in the lower house of Congress overnight, a key element that had been delayed last week amid teacher protests that paralyzed much of Mexico City and even forced him to change the date and location of the annual address.
"Our dilemma had been whether to continue to stagnate or to allow the state to recover the leadership and transform and improve the quality of education," the president said.
The education bill still must be approved by the Senate, and protesting teachers who blocked Mexico City's main freeway and access to its airport last week continue to occupy the capital's main plaza.
Touting accomplishments in other fields, Pena Nieto reported a significant drop in murders and drug-related killings since he took office, though many doubt those statistics. He said the government had captured 65 of 122 most-wanted criminals in the last nine months, though that list has never been made public.
And he garnered more applause with a stern message to the many vigilante groups that have taken up arms against drug cartels and legal authorities alike: "We will not tolerate anyone who tries to mete out justice through their own means."
Pena Nieto came to office with a lot of swagger and an aggressive agenda, with many saying his Institutional Revolutionary Party, for all its faults, knew how to govern. And he promised to make Mexico an economic powerhouse, overcoming its image as a violence-torn land overrun by drug traffickers.
He passed radical reforms for education and telecommunications, but the battle over just how the education law will be applied has threatened to undermine his plans to overhaul the tax system and energy sector.
He's also seen economic growth projections for this year cut nearly in half.
The education bill calls for mandatory assessment of teachers to maintain their jobs and to receive promotions. Teachers can inherit their positions under the current system.
The bill approved by the House of Deputies is a slightly weakened version of Pena Nieto's proposal, which sought to reassert government control over an education system where hiring and promotion was almost entirely in the hands of teachers' unions.
The reform sets up a competitive examination system for hiring and requires teachers to pass regular evaluations in order to remain in the classroom.
But last-minute concessions to a dissident teachers' union reserves new positions for graduates of union-controlled teacher training schools for the next two years and allows teachers who fail evaluations to file appeals through the existing civil service system.
The government proposal would have put the test-based hiring system in place immediately, and not allowed appeals after repeated failures of teacher evaluations.
Independent education advocates praised the passage of the proposal as a good first step after decades of union control of the schools, but said the measure didn't go far enough to establish a rigorous nationwide system of teacher training and promotion.
They said they worried that further reforms could stall as the government pushes to change Mexico's tax regime and allow private investment in the state oil company.
Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Michael Weissenstein contributed to this report.