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First Nations funding report draws criticism from aboriginal educators

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A controversial Fraser Institute report on the alleged wealth of First Nations education counts a lot of money that has nothing to do with the classroom, one of Manitoba’s leading aboriginal educators said Monday.

"It’s far from valid," said Lorne Keeper, executive director of the Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.

The right-wing, B.C.-based think tank issued a report last week which concluded that claims of underfunding in reserve schools compared to public schools across Canada are a myth.

The Fraser Institute said that Ottawa provides higher per-student kindergarten to Grade 12 funding for reserve schools everywhere except in Manitoba, where the difference is marginal.

"When they roll it all up, it sounds good," Keeper conceded.

Manitoba chiefs have claimed public school students here receive $3,500 a year more in operating grants than do First Nations children.

Keeper said that some of the federal funds the Fraser Institute cited never find their way into the classroom.

Manitoba First Nations have 49 schools but only 19 high schools, he said. About 60 per cent of high school students attend a public high school, for which Ottawa pays tuition — higher per-student funding than they would have received were they educated on their reserve — and in many cases, room, board and transportation, Keeper said.

"There’s at least 1,700 students who attend a private home placement program in Winnipeg, Brandon or Thompson," he said. "The room and board is all included."

In Frontier School Division, "Their tuition rates could be as high as $16,000 to $18,000," Keeper said.

Frontier operates the north’s only technical-vocational high school in Cranberry Portage. Students from all over the north live in residence and receive several trips home a year, which boosts the per-student cost well beyond $20,000 a year, much of which should not be counted as classroom costs, Keeper argued.

Manitoba department of education officials, pointing to federal reports, said "There are many disparities between the First Nations and provincial education systems and numerous gaps regarding student supports, curriculum development, programming, infrastructure, etc. (Ottawa) itself cautions against simply looking at funding levels as an indicator of parity."

Keeper said that, unlike the feds, the province does not include its own costs of operating the education department in calculating per-student operational spending. He said that there is significant lump sum money which Ottawa makes available for possible education use, which poverty-stricken band councils facing high unemployment must instead use for housing, social services, and other needs.

"There’s a total hierarchy of needs — it’s survival at the local level," he said.

The think tank also said First Nations schools do not have certified teachers, their high school diplomas are not recognized, and they do not follow recognized curricula.

Most First Nations teachers are faculty of education graduates, Keeper said — the exceptions are language and culture specialists. Reserve schools follow the provincial curriculum, he said, and reserve schools’ high school diplomas are legitimate and accepted.

"We would certainly recognize high school graduation if the student graduated from a reserve high school," said a University of Winnipeg official.

However, the U of W official said small high schools may not be able to offer a wide-enough variety of courses to enable students to get into particular university programs requiring pre-calculus or 40S sciences, so they may need to upgrade.

Keeper said that MFNERC hopes to solve the problems of course variety faced by small enrolment schools with a virtual high school that could deliver specialized credits.

He said getting stalled federal legislation on First Nations education moving would give bands the authority and funding they need to solve their own problems.

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