Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


National Policy of Free Textbooks for all Mexican Schoolchildren

On February 12, 1959 the Mexican government led by President Adolfo López Mateos creates the The National Commission of Free Textbooks, known in Spanish as La Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos or by its acronym CONALITEG (Orozco Linares, 2001, p. 258-259.)

On that date, the Ministry of Education of Mexico began the implementation of a policy of free textbooks for all Mexican school children. Launched amidst tremendously heated controversy and gradually overcoming considerable opposition, the textbooks have become central features of the Mexican educational system. In fact, one could now describe the Mexican populace as often overlooking the larger picture of the textbooks' surprising success-against-the-odds. Perhaps after approximately four decades of textbook production, most Mexican families have grown very accustomed to the annual distribution of the libros de texto and do not see it as a particularly unusual aspect of the overall schooling experience (Torres Bodet, 1972, p. 241 cited in CONALITEG, 2004a, p. 6).

To cite some impressive statistics, 123 million books were distributed in 1996-97 to elementary school students and kindergarten children (Velasco, 1999, p. 17). Over the last 43 years, more than 3,000,000,000 textbooks have been distributed at the kindergarten (preescolar) level (CONALITEG, 2004b, p. 1). In addition, free textbooks are produced in Braille and distributed throughout all of Mexico to students with special needs. As well, all teachers receive a teacher guide-book for every textbook at each level of kindergarten, primary, and secundaria. Along with the predominant Spanish language textbooks, the federal government began producing textbooks in 1996 for the Indian populations. As of 1999, approximately 1,400,000 textbooks had been produced in forty-six Indian languages and such materials were not just direct translations of the original Spanish versions but had been written by and for Indian communities (Velasco, 1999, p. 22). However, some have argued that the textbooks still retain a centralistic inclination that emphasizes Mexican nationalism at the cost of not fully capturing the richness of multiethnic diversity within the nation (Morfín, 1999, p. 13).

Currently, only two countries give (as opposed to lend or sell) textbooks to their students: Japan and Mexico (Velasco, 1999, p. 18). In comparison to the role played by textbooks even in First World countries, the libros de texto gratuitos have occupied a position of far more profound influence on the education of the people. For example, in the case of Canada, public schools lend textbooks to children for the duration of the academic year and therefore, the life of a book can be estimated to be between three to five years, depending upon the book. In Mexico, the life of a textbook, taking a strictly economic perspective, is one year or annual. But from a sociological perspective, in theory that book will form part of the family library for many years (Schmelkes, 1999, p. 27). In a long-range campaign to encourage literacy and to inspire regular reading habits, the Mexican government has ensured that every Mexican child will own his/her personal collection of more than forty textbooks by the completion of primary school (Velasco, 1999, p. 25). No small feat indeed!

From a cultural viewpoint, a crucial point in the lifetime or duration of the textbooks is that they can act as catalysts, bringing about an instructional "ripple" effect for other family members. It is important to point out that these textbooks are often the only written materials in the homes of poor Mexican families with low levels of schooling (Ibarrola, 1999, p. 36). Furthermore, the textbooks have been praised for shaping a Mexican identity and promoting national unity because children from Quintana Roo to Baja California all study from (mostly) the same textbooks and have been doing so for more than forty years (Schmelkes, 1999, p. 56).

Although teachers, specialists, and members of the public have been invited to participate in periodic revisions, the textbooks still battle problems with respect to quality of content. As well, doubts have been cast on the tendency by the National Teachers Union (el Sindicato de Trabajadores Educativos) to contribute an overly-uniform and hegemonic tone during textbook composition (Ornelas, 1999, p. 62). Furthermore, in spite of being widely accepted by the general public, the textbooks continue to occasionally generate storms of passionate disagreement. As portrayed by the almost countless debates in the media over the years, there is a wide panorama of views on how the textbooks should present (or should not present) such contentious topics such as sexual education and Mexican history.

Much debate has centred on the obligatory nature of these books, since critics argue that their obligatory status results in the State imposing and promulgating a narrow conceptual framework of the world, especially with respect to Mexico's political past and present (Morfín, 1999, p. 14). However, supporters point out that while educators are obliged to use these books, they are not restricted to only using these textbooks in the classroom. Rather, the textbooks may be supplemented by additional optional textbooks and teaching materials, so that the educator still retains a degree of professional freedom (Velasco, 1999, p.17).

Originally, the textbooks were intended solely for children in kindergarten and in primary school, that is, from grades 1 through 6. Students in secundaria (Grades 7 to 9) had to purchase their textbooks. In 1997, however, in an effort to reduce the high rates of student drop-out in secundaria, the Ministry of Education established The Program of Distribution of Free Textbooks for Secundaria (El Programa de Distribución de Libros de Texto para Secundaria). Under this program, secundaria students were loaned their textbooks and were required to return them at the end of the school year (CONALITEG, 2004c, p. 1). Starting in the 2004/2005 academic year, though, secundaria students will be permitted to keep their textbooks, thus increasing the number of the eligible recipients to include all students from kindergarten up to the third year of secundaria.

All public schools in Mexico use the libros de texto gratuitos, but their usage varies across private schools. Private schools are required by law to follow a national curriculum, but are not obliged to necessarily utilize the free textbooks per se. Nonetheless, many, if not most private schools choose to receive the free textbooks from the government and do distribute the textbooks out to their students. The principal and/or teachers of each individual private school then decide the extent to which the textbooks will be utilized as pedagogical tools in the classrooms.

A different federal program, administered by the National Institute of Education for Adults and known by its Spanish acronym INEA for Instituto Nacional Para la Educación de los Adultos is also worth mentioning. In the year 2000, there were 1,100,962 adult learners registered in various modelos (study programs) including literacy, primary, secundaria, and life skills (INEA, 2004, p. 2). All such adult learners received a free package of textbooks. The textbooks produced for adult learners differ in content and appearance from the libros de texto gratuitos given to children.

Although several challenges remain, the libros de texto gratuitos represent an astonishing accomplishment for a developing country whose poorly-financed educational system has been persistently beset by chronic difficulties. As Sylvia Schmelkes (1999, p. 26) points out, "With respect to their textbooks, without a doubt Mexico is at the forefront of leading advances because it is one of the first countries in the world to ensure that every primary school student receives his/her own free textbooks."


Centro de Estudios Educativos (1999). Diálogos - El libro de texto gratuito [Dialogue - The Free Textbook], Mexico City, Mexico. (Debators included: Luis Morfín, Centro de Estudios Educativos, A.C., Jorge Velasco, Cámara Nacional de la Industria Editorial, Sylvia Schmelkes, Departamento de Investigaciones Educativas del CINVESTAV-IPN, María de Ibarrola, Fundación SNTE para la Cultura del Maestro Mexicano, A.C., Carlos Ornelas, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco.

CONALITEG - Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuito (2004b). Materiales Educativos - Preescolar. Retrieved October 13, 2004 from 

CONALITEG - Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos (2004c). Materiales Educativos - Secundaria. Retrieved September 23, 2004 from 

Instituto Nacional Para La Educación de los Adultos - INEA (2004). Estadisticas - Adultos atendidos por Entidad Federativa. Retrieved October 13, 2004 from 

Orozco Linares, F. (2001). Fechas históricas de México [Historical Dates in Mexico] (9th Edition). Panorama Editorial: Mexico City, Mexico.

Torres Bodet, J. (1972). Fragmento de La Tierra Prometida (Memorias). 1st Edition, Mexico City, Mexico: Editorial Porrúa, pp. 241-249. Available in CONALITEG - Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos (2004a) - Presentacíon - Historia. Retrieved October 12, 2004 from 

For a related website on the donation of Mexican textbooks to various U.S. states (as part of a bicultural and foreign languages educational program,) please see the following newspaper article:

Luckett, B. (May 26, 2004). Mexico offers state free textbooks. Casper Star Tribune, Retrieved September 10, 2004 from: 05/26/news/wyoming/

Prepared by Louise Gormley (OISE/UT)

Citation: Gormley, Louise (2004). 1959: National policy of free textbooks for all Mexican schoolchildren. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available: 


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