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— Free education to all children stands among the most hallowed provisions in Mexico's federal constitution. But according to a state human rights official, it may be one of the most threatened.

Francisco Javier Sánchez Corona's title, procuraduría de los derechos humanos, translates to state attorney of human rights. "We're an autonomous entity," he explains. "This office was created to oversee public servants in the state government and the five municipalities of Baja California, to make sure that they respect human rights and the constitution. We're independent of all these governments so that we can act freely to issue statements against public officials who violate the law. In Mexico there are two types of authorities who handle justice: the judicial system and human rights offices. The judicial system handles questions of law. We go beyond the idea of legality to the themes of justice and human rights."

In Baja California, Sánchez says, the right of parents to send their children to school for free is under attack. The perpetrators are the schools themselves. "They are making parents pay anywhere from $20 to $200 per child as a condition of enrollment. That money is being used to satisfy needs and situations that the government is obliged to cover, such as classroom repairs, building more classrooms, maintenance workers' payroll, and those kinds of expenses. It started as a custom, but it became more and more mandatory, and it has converted into an obligation."

But charging any kind of fee is a direct violation of the constitution, Sánchez says. "I was assigned to Tijuana about two and a half months ago to fight this problem. I was aware of the problem before I came. But a month and a half into it, I realized that the problem was much bigger than I thought."

Sánchez says a cruel irony is that the practice of charging for admission "occurs mostly in the neighborhoods where the poorest live. The majority of these people make enough money just to subsist, and their economic situations are not going to allow them to meet any extra expenses."

Yet pay they must. María, a grandmother who lives in the working-class colonia of Los Pinos, in eastern Tijuana, complains, "They won't let my grandchildren attend class unless we pay."

Pablo Contreras, the director of Leona Vicario Secondary School in the La Mesa area, about seven miles east of downtown Tijuana, admits that his school charges. "We do have an annual fee," he says, "of 1000 pesos [about $100] per parent. But it's not a condition of admission. It's purely voluntary. They can take the money in anytime they want during the school year, and they can pay in installments. But at the same time, if they come and they present their situation and say that they cannot pay, it is not mandatory. The only thing that we ask them for is the materials. The list is normally four rolls of toilet paper, one ream of white paper, a package of drinking-water cones, and a package of women's sanitary napkins."

Most parents, Contreras says, are "happy to pay." But other parents won't help with cash or material donations even if they're able. "Thirty-five to 40 percent argue that they are not obliged to do it, and they don't. They say, 'The law says that even if the place is falling down, the government should do it. And if the government doesn't do it, then we are not going to do it.' Our attitude toward them is that it's not the children's fault they have uneducated parents. So we allow the children to stay."

Contreras insists that without the donations from parents, his school couldn't keep its doors open. And he insists that the use of the cash is well controlled. "We have a parents' association," he explains. "There is a president, secretary, and treasurer. We do everything with a deposit slip, everything is audited, and I don't touch the money. Everything is done through them. And even when they have to issue a check -- because sometimes parents pay the school, but then they move to another part of the city, so we have to refund money -- even all that is done with receipts."

If monetary or material donations are purely voluntary and not a condition of enrollment, as Contreras insists they are at Leona Vicario, they are within the law, Sánchez says. "We're in favor of people participating and cooperating with their schools, because it benefits the quality of education and it improves the condition of the buildings. But that cooperation should depend upon the income of the family and their willingness. If they can't pay, or if they don't want to pay, they can't be forced to."

The gray area, Sánchez warns, lies in how the children of nonpaying parents are treated once they are admitted. "They are hostages of many teachers and principals who abuse their authority," he says of such children. "These teachers and principals create an atmosphere of restlessness because they pressure them, they put them down because their parents haven't paid. The parents are afraid of not making the payment or not doing whatever the principal requests, because their children pay the consequences. When the children are in the classroom, they are singled out and castigated."

Though he is a state attorney, Sánchez has no power to prosecute education officials charging for admission to their schools. "As a human rights organization, we can only make recommendations to prosecutors."

Sánchez has aided in legal proceedings against school officials who were using parents' donations "for personal loans among themselves or to pay their personal cell-phone bills or similar things," but he's not interested in throwing people in jail. Instead, he's launched a public campaign to inform parents that they are under no legal obligation to pay and to educate schools that they are under a strict legal obligation not to charge mandatory fees. In addition to printing and distributing pamphlets informing parents of their rights, he and his assistants also have been responding to the more than 1000 written complaints they've received concerning enrollment fees. When they receive such a letter, he says, "We go to the school with the parents. We try to get together a group of parents who have a similar problem. And we talk with the principal of the school to request that he or she enroll the child without any condition. In some cases, we have gotten a lot of support, massive support, 200 to 300 parents at meetings with the principals, and the principals have agreed not to make paying a condition of enrollment. Those have been victories for the parents."

Sánchez says he believes school officials such as Contreras when they say they can't operate on the money they get from the state of Baja California. "Their schools have enormous needs, and the state does not give them the proper funds to solve these problems. With the taxes we pay, there should be enough to solve the situation. But the state mismanages the money. The government says that they allocate more than 50 percent of the budget for education. I am not very convinced of that. And even so, most of that goes for salaries for teachers and bureaucrats. The state education authorities know the problem. They are against fees being charged for education, but in reality they allow it because they do nothing to fix the situation or they act in a very limited way. And this attitude encourages the schools to charge illegally. And because they are the people who educate the future generations, they are creating a culture against legality."

And they may be creating a culture of unrest among parents who are feeling the bite. "I had to pay 600 pesos to register my daughter," says Pedro (who would not give his real name), the father of a first grader at Otho Murillo Salgado elementary school in the Mesa de Otay area of Tijuana. "Then I had to buy 1200 pesos' worth of materials for the school and pay 400 pesos for the monthly tests. And at the end of the year, I'll have to pay another 280 pesos to get my daughter's report card. Without it, she can't go on to the second grade."

Juanita (not her real name), who has a son in the fourth grade at the same school, confirmed the numbers Juan gave and added "80 pesos for insurance." In Mexico, schools carry insurance that covers their students against injuries from the time they leave home on the way to school until they return. "If I don't pay," Juanita adds, "my son might not be admitted to class, and he could lose his place in school."

Pedro rejects the idea that schools must charge parents in order to keep their doors open. "They get enough money from the government to run the school," he claims. "I think they're keeping the money for themselves."

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