Give Native Students the Freedom to Choose

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Appeared in the National Post, 28 March 2005
Each year, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) spends about a billion dollars to pay for the education of First Nations children living on reserves. But the department has made it clear that it doesn’t want responsibility for determining how this money is spent. Instead, it passes the funds on to First Nation education authorities to allocate as they see fit.

These authorities can, for example, create a competitive market for schooling by giving families a tuition voucher redeemable at whichever school the parents think is best for their children. But many First Nations leaders argue that they must have the authority to restrict the educational options of on-reserve children. How else, they ask, can they be certain that native children will attend schools that promote a full understanding of their cultural heritage?

Does the concentration of power in First Nations education authorities translate into better learning for kids? The available evidence suggests it does not. Indeed, First Nations students are failing in large numbers.

This educational crisis is seldom discussed thanks to a conspiracy of silence maintained by both governments and native groups. In Alberta and Quebec, for example, provincial and First Nations education authorities have agreed to withhold critical information on student achievement at reserve schools. In Ontario, very few of these schools even participate in that province’s comprehensive annual testing program, thus eliminating the need to suppress poor results.

Students at those Ontario schools that do participate perform poorly. On the October 2002 sitting of the Secondary School Literacy Test -- an exam written during grade 10 when most students are 15 or 16 years old -- only 12% of first-time eligible students at First Nations schools for which data were reported received a passing grade in reading and writing. By contrast, at the province’s other schools, 72% of such students passed both parts of the test.

Some First Nations leaders believe they must assume even greater authority if student results are to improve. Consider this blunt message former INAC Minister Robert Nault received in 2002 from his National Working Group on Education: We believe the jurisdiction that First Nations require to govern and manage the education of their learners should be exclusive and all encompassing. This translates into total and complete control over lifelong learning for all First Nations learners regardless of where they reside or where they attend school.

Ottawa isn’t prepared to go that far. But the current minister, Andy Scott, is reported to be considering the establishment of a national network of Aboriginal school boards that would work with the provinces to agree on common standards. On the evidence, however, it is unlikely that the creation of such boards would, in and of itself, lead to improved student results.

Two such boards have operated in Quebec since 1975. The Cree School Board serves Cree communities in Northern Quebec and the Kativik School Board serves Inuit in the Nunavik region. The latter enjoys the kind of power envisaged by the National Working Group. Its mandate gives it the exclusive jurisdiction in Nunavik to provide pre-school, elementary, secondary and adult education, and the responsibility to develop programs and teaching materials.

The only available results data reflect a distressingly low level of achievement among these boards’ students. For example, based on 2002-03 data, only one third of these boards’ students complete the last two years of high school in the normal time. The two-year completion rate for students attending Quebec’s other schools is almost double that.

By focusing on total control as the cornerstone of their education policy, First Nations leaders are ignoring a simple and reliable way to improve education quality: competition. They can harness the power of competition by agreeing with INAC that taxpayer education dollars will be distributed to individual families in the form of a voucher. This voucher would then be used to pay tuition at whichever school parents choose: existing band-operated, on-reserve schools; academically focused public or private off-reserve schools; or, perhaps, private off-reserve schools run by First Nations educators who are keen to give students a bi-cultural education.

The number of choices would be dictated only by the diversity of demand. Similar freedom to choose is already enjoyed by nearly half of Canadian families. In Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, parents can use what is, in essence, a government voucher to pay for a substantial portion of tuition at a wide variety of private schools.

There can be little doubt that increased competition improves education quality. It is hardly a coincidence that the Canadian provinces with partial voucher systems in place include those that routinely do best on national and international assessments.

A competitive market in education also provides schooling that most closely reflects the wishes of individual First Nations families, whether it is an education program that focuses on native culture; or one that fully prepares its students for the challenges of today’s global economy.

First Nations children need better education now. It is time that the schools they attend ensure they get it. A school voucher program for First Nations families is an essential first step.

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