OTTAWA – The federal government has for years failed to address the higher costs of operating First Nations schools, leaving some students at a disadvantage compared with their peers in the provincial system, the parliamentary budget officer says.
The funding divide between educational programming on reserves and in the provincial systems was as wide as $595 million in 2012-13, and could reach $665 million in 2016-17, says a new report from the fiscal watchdog released Tuesday.
That said, about $3.7 billion in financial commitments made by the Liberal government over the next five years could begin to narrow the gap starting in 2016-17, and eventually eliminate it by 2020-21, the report says.
Educational funding in Canada is primarily a provincial responsibility except for on-reserve schooling, which is financed by Ottawa.
“There’s a huge gap between the average funding that the (federal) government provides for First Nations reserves and what the provinces are providing,” said Mostafa Askari, assistant parliamentary budget officer.
“Now, how that impacts the students, that’s a different issue … But certainly there’s a funding shortfall relative to the provinces.”
For example, the report found that on-reserve schools received per-student funding of $14,500 under the federal formula in 2012-13. But when calculated under the Ontario provincial rules, they would have been allocated between $21,000 and $25,000 per pupil.
In comparison, Ontario’s per-student funding was $11,500 that year.
The budget office said the funding gap was a result of the federal government’s failure to provide enough financial support for First Nations schools, which often face greater costs due to factors such as remote locations, socio-economic challenges, higher rates of special education and the inclusion of culturally relevant lessons.
Canada has some 500 band-operated schools, which accommodate 110,000 students. More than 140 of the schools can be considered either remote, special access or north of the 55th parallel, the report said.
It also noted that these schools face added obstacles such as higher maintenance, heating and supply costs as well as the ability to attract and house qualified teachers.
The effectiveness of the new federal commitments will depend on how the money is eventually used, the study notes. Even the provincial approach could prove inadequate for these schools, it points out.
“Funding formula methodologies used in the provinces may not fully address the reality of First Nations communities, but they represent a starting point that is both transparent and evidence based.”
The report also examined the shortfall in federal capital funding for on-reserve schools.
It said that over the next few years the federal commitments in this area have the potential to address capital funding gaps, but only if Ottawa puts an end to its past practice of failing to spend large amounts of funds it had dedicated for First Nations schools.