by Michelle Sanderson
First Nations Education Act: Just another top down Act constructed without input from First Nations?
People are all abuzz on twitter and facebook today, regarding the First Nations Education Act. As I attempt to make sense of this piece of legislation, I am left to question, what is it? And what does it entail? As we already know, First Nations students on–reserve, receive funding through the federal government for their schools. Much of the infrastructure at the schools are in various states of decay, typically, there is little to no internet in most of the schools. I was surprised, when I came to Living Sky as I walked through various schools how abundant the schools were in resources. I saw ipads, computer rooms, exercise rooms, equipment overflowing to the brim in the phys.ed equipment rooms and the science labs. This is something that I hadn’t often seen when visiting or working in First Nations Schools. Of course, I don’t want to over generalize, as some communities had made huge efforts to stack classrooms with supplies and equipment, using funding from elsewhere, or fund raising. However; schools on reserves are typically, being operated without having the budgets, which provincial schools do. This money is what attracts the specialized supports that larger provincial school divisions would have, such as education psychologists, occupational therapists, language, math and early learning consultants, arts education consultants or First Nation and Metis Achievement coordinators to name a few. In short, First Nations Schools are typically being run with bare bones funding. We could come to the conclusion, like the federal government did, that First nations people are unable to handle their finances and that they are misspending monies which are meant for their education. However; when you see the funding formulas, you get a clearer picture of what it means to be a First Nations student in a First Nations school.
First of all, the funding formula, which is set out by the federal government, states that schools on reserves receive tuition as accorded by Ottawa. Whether the school is in a remote part of the province, or near a bustling city centre, the funding formula is the same. Schools typically receive between 3,000.00 – 7000.00 less per child in tuition fees, than if that same child were registered in a provincial school. Let’s say for instance that reserve school X has 300 student. After applying to INAC or DIAND as they’re called now, the school would typically receive, oh, let’s say, $7000.00 per student after nominal roll is collected on September 30. Therefore, the school would receive about $2,100,000.00 for their operating budget, to pay out teacher and staff contracts, maintenance fees, purchase equipment, and renovations as any other typical school would do. However; if those same students were enrolled in Provincial School Y, after nominal roll in September, that same school would receive up to 7000.00 more per student from the provincial government. Therefore, the funding formula could look like 300 students x 14,000.00 =4,200,000.00. As you can see, this is a significant difference in the operating costs and ability to hire quality teachers and to implement quality planning within the school.
When First Nations students switch from a reserve system, to a provincial system, there is a perception that they are usually delayed in reading, writing and math. We’re left to think that perhaps it has to do with the quality of the First Nation to administer their funding adequately, or perhaps the problem is the First Nations teachers, or the parents, or maybe it’s related to their culture. However; when we realize that indeed First Nations students are coming into school with a price over their heads which is sometimes half as much as a provincial student is worth, then we must wonder about why the reason for the funding disparity?
First Nations people are hopeful that the First Nations Education Act is going to address these funding disparities, so that First Nations children, living on-reserve, can have a chance for a quality education, which is not only adequate and equal to provincial standards, but as well, that it will honour their culture, languages and heritage. The First Nations Education Act was rolled out without consultation from First Nations people. In many cases, in order to receive their band’s operating budget, First Nations are being forced to adhere to the agreement before they receive their operating budgets. First Nations people are wary that the government may have not addressed the funding disparity, but, is yet, forcing First Nations to comply with provincial curriculum standards with little to no financial supports to meet these requirements.
First Nations people are confused and concerned as to what the Act entails and why a First Nation Education Act is needed, especially without consultation from the people whom the act will encompass. Some First Nation parents said, we already have negotiated for our education through treaties with the federal government and offloading the education responsibility to the province will, in effect, make treaty null and void. We’ll be hearing more about this as time goes by when on-reserve funding initiatives are either depleted or exhausted. As educators of First Nations children, we should all be concerned about what this Act means for members of our society. As the achievement gap garners more and more attention, we’re forced to think critically about how and why funding disparities, as such, exist and whether forcing compliance to externally created top down initiatives are really going to make the changes they promise. More to come later.