Aboriginal education bill chance to promote choice

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

Canada has a unique opportunity to promote school choice among Aboriginal families.

Unique because the federal government will soon table a First Nations Education Act. This law will create the first indigenous educational system in Canada.  The federal government has promised that a First Nations education system will be in place for the beginning of the 2014 school year.

If done right, the First Nations Education Act could empower students and families by allowing greater educational choices that will help families find options that work best for their children.  A better-educated First Nations population will more likely become employed and advance the economic productivity of Canada as a whole.

This is not only a good opportunity, but a moral imperative. The Aboriginal population is growing six times faster than the non-Aboriginal population. Moreover, 48% of the indigenous population is under the age of 25, compared to 31% in the non-aboriginal population.  Young First Nations people represent an unrealized labour force, given projections for future growth in the resource industry.

New policies are needed.  Increasing funding for old policies has not worked.

The Indian Act contains very few provisions for First Nations education.  So policy makers are not constrained by this Act, and they have an opportunity to innovate.

A proposed draft of the federal education legislation has now been released. Unfortunately, the draft bill envisions meeting the noble ideas in that document mainly through traditional schools, although provision is made to enter into agreements with private or charter schools for services. Some provinces, unfortunately, want to keep aboriginal students in publicly funded schools so that schools are filled.

However, considerable research points to the fact that students’ educational performance, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, can be improved by opening schools to market-style competition.  This means charter schools and perhaps vouchers for students.

A First Nation Education Act could provide governance options to First Nations for the operation of schools. However, only three models are presented. One is for First Nations to operate schools directly; another is to establish and delegate the operation of schools to a First Nations education authority that would operate multiple schools on a number of reserves. Finally, a model envisions First Nations entering into agreements with provincial school boards to operate on-reserve schools or bus students to schools managed by provincial boards.

An alternative not considered would be a voucher-type program for Aboriginal families. Rather than send money to band schools, funds would flow to individual families on First Nations and they could choose the schools their children attend.

While the bill mentions that parents may opt for charter or independent schools, they are expected to pay for it on their own. However, because so many reserves are small and isolated, the possibility of alternative schools is next to nil.

Nevertheless, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy has presented a workable voucher system for First Nations students in the past. The voucher system would require that band councils pay for remedial tutors whenever parent-funded independent tests showed that their children are more than two grade levels below their actual age-grade level. As such, this voucher system would give parents, principals, and teachers incentives to ensure that students progress at an appropriate rate. 

Arizona has embarked on a similar path with Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, where parents are given money that they can spend on private school tuitions, education therapy services and aides, textbooks, and tutoring.

The other option is the building of indigenous charter schools. The proposed education bill does not provide for charter or independent schools either on or off reserve.  So far, Canada has only one indigenous charter school near Edmonton, AB. The Mother Earth’s Children’s Charter School focuses on indigenous cultural values while providing a rigorous curriculum.

American data shows that charter schools help improve outcomes for disadvantaged students. In fact, the United States has many indigenous charter schools that are serving students on a number of reservations.

Perhaps Ottawa could embark on a charter school pilot project, in cooperation with provincial authorities. This could provide much needed choice to First Nations families who are often stuck with their local band school.

Rather than focus solely on traditional schools, Ottawa should present legislation to empower First Nations families by providing with more education options than the three traditional school types. After all, parents know their children best.