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Are Aboriginal Students Underfunded? Fraser Institute Says No

Assembly of First Nations has its own math. There are, however, two points they agree on.

Katie Hyslop 8 Aug

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter @kehyslop.

It's been a year since the federal government released its blueprint for First Nations education, a preview of legislation introduced in October pledging an additional $275 million in annual funding for on-reserve education in Canada.

But the proposed First Nations Education Act came with too many federal controls for most First Nations to support, and was shelved last May.

Unsurprisingly, education outcomes for First Nations students studying on reserve remain poor. While British Columbia's graduation rate for on-reserve students is almost 60 per cent, it's not quite 40 per cent across the rest of the country.

Inadequate funding for on-reserve schools is often cited as a reason, particularly when compared to what students who attend public schools receive from provincial governments.

A new report, however, argues the notion that First Nations students receive less funding than their non-indigenous peers isn't the case on a national level.

"Myths and Realities of First Nations Education" by the Fraser Institute's Ravina Bains outlines four different "myths" of First Nations education: that students are underfunded compared their non-First Nations peers; that funding increases have been capped at a two per cent annually since 1996; that public school tuition exceeds funding for First Nations' students; and that on-reserve education would be better if the Kelowna Accord's pledge of $1.05 billion for it hadn't been killed by the current federal government.

"[The report] highlights issues that are impacting First Nations education, but that have not received adequate attention from policy makers," writes Bains.

Jarrett Laughlin, a senior policy analyst with the Assembly of First Nations, takes issue with almost all of the myths. "From our perspective, it's perpetuating more of the 'myths' and not enough of the realities," he said.

'Legislating' teacher quality

Bains' report aims to prove that not only is underfunding a "myth," but that more funding wouldn't improve education outcomes for First Nations. She argues the real problem is the lack of statutory regulations on how on-reserve schools operate.

"Canadian taxpayers are funding an education system in First Nations communities that has no legislated mandate for a core curriculum meeting provincial standards, no requirement that educators in First Nations schools have provincial certification, and no requirement for First Nations schools to award a recognized provincial diploma," she writes.

While it's true there is no legislation requiring First Nations to follow provincial curriculum or ensure teachers are provincially certified, Laughlin said every funding agreement signed between a nation and the federal government requires that on-reserve schools meet these standards.

"They are not hiring teachers without a provincial certification; they have to adhere to the provincial curriculum," he said, adding communities would like the power to set their own standards, which is one reason why many aboriginal people disliked the First Nations Education Act.

Bains countered that without laws requiring First Nations to meet certain criteria, there isn't necessarily follow-up from government on whether nations are meeting funding requirements, and that hurts students.

She cites the 2011 National Panel on First Nations Education report, which found "no consistent practices, regulations or policies in terms of teacher certification, regulation or discipline, so that child safety is paramount, or quality is consistently assured throughout all schools and programs, when a complaint or concern is raised."

"We don't by any means say this is the case all across the country," Bains added. She cited Nova Scotia's Mikmaq Education Act as a positive example of a province and nation-specific solution that legislates teacher quality and curriculum expectations.

Since it passed in 1998, graduation rates for on-reserve Mikmaq students have increased to 87 per cent. That's higher than B.C.'s 80 per cent graduation rate for non-Aboriginal students.

What's the true cost?

How much Bains says "Canadian taxpayers" are funding First Nations students at on-reserve schools relies on math the AFN has questioned before. The report argues that the national average for per-pupil First Nations funding is $13,524, compared to $11,646 for non-First Nations students.

In 2012, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada similarly claimed First Nations students were funded $13,542 on average, compared to the average provincial funding of $10,439 for non-First Nations students.

In both cases, Laughlin says the figures cited include money for status students attending public schools; funding for additional education deals like British Columbia's tripartite education agreement, where higher funding was agreed to for B.C. only; and temporary funding offered to individual First Nations who apply for it.

Only about 40 per cent of the $1.5 billion Bains cites truly goes to students attending First Nations' schools, he said, for an average of just over $7,000 per student.

Bains said she included not only direct education transfers from the federal government to First Nations, but also money nations applied for because "a lot of the grants that are provided to provincial school boards [by provincial governments] are on an application basis," too.

Not counting money some nations receive in temporary grants "isn't an accurate reflection of the funding provided to on-reserve students," she said.

She said it's important to include funding for students living on reserves but attending public schools in the total calculation, because they exist in jurisdictional limbo.

"They don't fall under the provincial jurisdiction, and at the end of the day the provinces are the ones that have the expertise on education," she said.

Instead, they fall under federal jurisdiction. But neither level of government is keeping track of what school boards charge bands for sending their kids to public schools. That's a problem, said Bains, because there are at least two documented cases of Ontario school boards overcharging bands for educating their children.

Laughlin couldn't comment on boards overcharging First Nations students, but did say because public schools often receive more funding per student from the provincial government, they require more money for First Nations' students than the federal government provides.

Since federal money is given to bands in a lump sum instead of paid directly to school boards, bands have to dip into their overall education pool to make up the difference. This means band schools will get less funding per student, or fewer students will receive funding.

Kelowna fulfilled?

Federal education funding transfers to First Nations have been capped since 1996 at a two per cent per year increase. Bains argues that cap remains in theory, but unofficially government increased First Nations education by close to double that amount between 2006 and 2011.

"This data demonstrates that the two per cent cap around education spending growth is a myth," she writes.

This is another case of including temporary funding or funding not available to all nations, Laughlin said.

"When a government announces a new project, that can sometimes increase the annual amount to over two per cent," he said. "But when we talk about the core dollars going to our communities, it's subject to a two per cent cap and always has been."

In 1995, as an effort to decrease the national deficit, then-finance minister Paul Martin introduced the two per cent cap. A decade later, then-prime minster Martin met with aboriginal leaders and provincial ministers in Kelowna, B.C., to discuss Aboriginal education improvements.

The Kelowna Accord was the result, which included a federal pledge of $1.05 billion in additional funding rolled out over five years for on-reserve education. But the deal was scrapped when the Conservatives formed government in 2006.

"In recent years, claims have been made that if the Kelowna Accord had been enforced in 2006, and the additional $1.05 billion provided to First Nations, we would currently have a better education system on reserve that would have resulted in graduation rates on par with those of other Canadians," writes Bains.

Bains argues the accord didn't truly die, pointing to a $1.0987-billion increase in First Nations education funding from the Conservative government.

The report graphs the two funding models, and shows that while the Kelowna Accord would have provided a much quicker increase in funding, in the long run the current government has provided more funding as there was no as of 2005 to add more funding post-2010.

While the Assembly disagrees with the funding Bains included in the total for how much on-reserve kids are funded for their education, she said that differing point of view is the reason she wanted to write the report.

"On top of the annual funding [the federal government] have provided, they have technically fulfilled Kelowna. That I think a lot of people would be surprised by or interested in learning," she said.

"But we aren't see the results that was expected with that additional funding."

One thing to agree on

Laughlin says the AFN is not asking for per pupil funding on-par with what the provinces provide for their students, but instead for education opportunities equal to those in the public system.

That would mean "schools with good infrastructure, the same access to technology, curriculum development, [good] quality teachers that we can afford to pay at comparable rates," he said, adding that aboriginal kids should have the opportunity to be taught in their language and culture, just as French-speaking students.

In some cases that might require funding as high as the Canadian public school average, but in others -- especially schools on more rural reserves -- it could mean funding is even higher.

Schools funded by provincial governments vary in how much core funding they receive, Laughlin added, and more rural schools or Francophone schools often receive higher funding than the provincial per pupil average.

"[Using] averages hide things," Laughlin said.

There are two points where Bains and the AFN do agree.

She said the current system for funding First Nations' education is too complicated and long, an issue the Assembly has also raised in the past. "It can definitely be streamlined," she said.

And while there is no consensus on whether First Nations education is adequately funded, her report admits "the one thing everyone agrees on is that the status quo isn't working."  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Education

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