Liberal budget goes a long way to closing native education funding gap

Posted on March 28, 2016 in Equality Delivery System – Full Comment
March 25, 2016.   John Ivison

The Liberal budget goes a long way to closing the education funding gap between native and non-native children in Canada.

What’s not yet apparent is whether it will close the attainment gap that sees just one in four First Nations youth graduating high school, compared with nearly nine out of 10 non-native Canadians.

There are many things to complain about in Bill Morneau’s pay-day loan budget but the $2.6 billion devoted to improving outcomes in on-reserve primary and secondary schools is not one of them.

Former prime minister Paul Martin has called the native education crisis the biggest moral and social challenge we face as a country. He’s not wrong — this is the fastest-growing segment of the Canadian population, and it has fallen so far behind it may never catch up.

But the concern is the funding injection from budget 2016 will be insufficient unless there are substantial reforms in the on-reserve school system.

In the wake of the residential school system, education was devolved to individual First Nations that operate schools without any support structure, curriculum, teacher training, governance or accountability.

As the auditor general discovered, there were no guarantees that money earmarked for education ever reached schools, once passed on to band chiefs and councils.

The result has been schools that are disconnected from the provincial system, without reporting standards, special education provision, teacher certification or attendance monitoring.

The Conservative government’s response to this sorry state of affairs was to pledge to narrow the funding gap that sees many on-reserve schools receiving 30-50 per cent less per capita than provincial schools. The First Nations Control of Education Act promised to increase core funding by $1.25 billion over two years and replace a two per cent cap on funding with annual spending growth of 4.5 per cent.

But for reasons that had more to do with First Nations politics than substantive opposition to the bill, the deal was rejected by aboriginal leaders on the grounds that the legislation was “top down” and Ottawa would still retain control.

Of course, even under the Liberals, Ottawa is still in control.

Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affairs minister, made clear that there is recourse to deny funding under contribution agreements, if the government feels it has grounds.

But she was quick to stress that her efforts will be very much “bottom up” and she is keen to form “a true partnership” with indigenous groups.

Fortunately, Bennett is aware that the system is in dire need of reform and almost one-third of the funding is geared to “transformation” — creating the native school boards that regulate curriculum and professional development standards in such provinces as British Columbia, which already has a First Nations Education Steering Committee.

The government is also providing money to roll out Martin’s Aboriginal Education Initiative. His model pilot project in two schools had impressive results, improving literacy to provincial averages by Grade 3, using techniques pioneered in Ontario problem schools.

There will be more money available for special education — provided for “in a very ad hoc way” previously — as well as for language and cultural identity and technology.

“We need to get kids online so that they are able to Google their homework like everyone else,” Bennett said. Technology could also help with professional development, hooking up teachers in remote schools with more experienced colleagues off-reserve in a “buddy system.”

We need to get kids online so that they are able to Google their homework like everyone else
Whether this work ends up being codified in legislation is up in the air. “It’s an on-going conversation,” said Bennett.

The concern remains that native groups want money with no strings attached and no guarantees they can deliver on improving results.
On the other hand, the Conservatives had reached an impasse with First Nations, a relationship in which trust and mutual respect were running on empty.

Flush with $8.4 billion in new funding, including $96 million to help organizations like his own “engage” with government, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde called the budget a “significant step” in repairing relations.

This move toward mutual accommodation is long overdue.

But both sides have responsibilities: Bellegarde to the chiefs who elected him, Bennett to the taxpayers who paid for the funding increase.

No one is best served by Ottawa simply writing a giant cheque and then stepping away, which is the stated preference of the AFN.
Improving native education is simply too important for this government to risk getting it wrong.

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