A new agreement has put British Columbia aboriginal students who attend schools on reserves on a funding par with students who attend mainstream schools off reserve.
The Tripartite Education Framework Agreement promises consistent year-to-year funding, as well $15 million annually to support on reserve schools and the British Columbia First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC). The new funding model also includes money that mainstream schools receive for technology installation and maintenance. It takes effect in September 2012.
“Our mandate is to improve First Nation education," said FNESC president Tryonne McNeil in announcing the agreement in Ottawa on January 27. "This agreement reaffirms our commitment to continue the working relationship, based on mutual respect, recognition, collaboration and clarity of roles and responsibilities for First Nation education."
More than 131 B.C. First Nations receive kindergarten to Grade 12 education funding through the interim Band Operated Funding Formula, an agreement that expires at the end of this year and has been the subject of negotiations between FNESC and the federal and provincial governments.
A sticking point in the talks was the issue of per-pupil funding, which is estimated to be 20 to 30 percent less for on-reserve students. Also at issue was the notion of ceding control of the schools to the provincial government in exchange for more funding.
The new agreement establishes wage parity between on-off reserve schools of similar size, addresses the control issue and streamlines reporting requirements. The alternative was to return to the Band Operating Funding Formula, which offered significantly less funding.
As well, aboriginal students can now transfer between on reserve and mainstream schools at accepted achievement levels without academic penalty. The FNESC will also perform some services offered by mainstream school boards, such as administering and reporting school assessments.
The development is welcome news to Greg Louie, the former principal of Maaqtusiis School in Ahousaht. Louie is helping build a new school in the community, and he is also the president of the First Nations Schools Association in B.C.
“I know a lot of years of negotiations went into this, so it's a long time in coming. I know I cheered,” Louie said.
Ahousaht is a community on remote Flores Island, nine miles west of Tofino. It has an on-reserve population of 900, 200 of whom attend their school.
Under the previous funding arrangement, Ahousaht was forced to pay teachers 20 percent less than teachers in mainstream schools earned. And the school struggled to support the often high number of special-needs students.
Under the new agreement, the school can afford wage parity with teachers and will have the ability to assess and support 20 students with special needs instead of just six.
“This is long overdue, and it opens up new possibilities for our communities, schools and students,” Louie said.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo as well as the B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson Raybould lauded the agreement as a perfect example of how the Canadian, provincial and aboriginal governments can and should work together to strengthen the nation as a whole.
“The B.C. Tripartite Education Framework Agreement is another example of B.C. leading the way in First Nations’ education. The agreement is a practical model of how partnerships can work to ensure our children have the quality education they need and deserve,” said AFN B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson Raybould in an AFN statement. "Today’s success is a testament to the determination of our First Nation leadership to drive solutions and put our children first. The federal and provincial governments are to be commended for working collaboratively, respectively and openly to achieve the agreement reached today."
Atleo noted the importance of having First Nations design their own solutions.
“It is critical to advance First Nation designed solutions and bridge the funding gap for instructional services in First Nations schools. This agreement demonstrates the goodwill needed to move forward in this way. We must work to replicate success as appropriate for all jurisdictions right across the country securing quality First Nation education for all of our learners," he said in the AFN statement. "Ensuring our education systems reflect our languages and cultures is an integral part of the success we see right across the country and this agreement paves the way to lock in this success for all future generations. This can only be achieved if we work together.”
The on-reserve outlook nationally continues to remain bleak, however. Robert Laboucane, a consultant in aboriginal awareness issues for the Alberta firm Ripple Effects, said that most of the 518 on-reserve schools across Canada do not receive their funds until it has wended its way through a complex matrix of provincial jurisdictions, even though the federal government underwrites aboriginal education.
In Alberta, students on reserves get $3,000 less per year than students in provincial mainstream school. In Ontario the figure is $4,000 less, and the spread varies across other provinces.
“Basically, it’s just one big mess,” Laboucane said. B.C.’s tripartite agreement has been tried in a few other places, and that’s the problem, Laboucane said.
“It’s good for the kids in the region but they’re not treating it as a national program,” Laboucane said. “It doesn’t solve the national problem, which is a disaster.”
Meanwhile, the joint federal government-Assembly of First Nations panel is getting set to release its non-binding recommendations in February. Announced in 2010, the three-person panel was tasked with studying academic research about aboriginal education and soliciting ideas from First Nations participants across the country in an effort to make recommendations that improve elementary and secondary education on reserves.