A federally appointed panel says Canada is in desperate need for increased funding and accountability for first nations schools in order to combat soaring high-school drop-out rates among aboriginal youth.
It recommends new legislation, a First Nations Education Act, that would help accomplish these goals by replacing the current patchwork of programs and initiatives.
"There is no first nations education system that consistently supports and delivers positive outcomes for first nations students in Canada," said the panel's chair, Scott Haldane, after releasing the report Wednesday.
The panel made five recommendations for the federal government, including the creation of new legislation, a national first nations education commission, increased funding and improved tracking and reporting of learning outcomes.
They suggested that the national commission be launched within the next three months.
After receiving the report, Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan called the timeline "aspirational."
Reserve schools are struggling to meet students' basic needs, the panel concluded. Mr. Haldane said that in the eight months he spent touring the country, he saw first nations schools going without learning resources that the rest of the country takes for granted.
"You'd expect to have books in libraries, shop equipment that works, technology that is up to date, with screens that light up when you turn them on, and teachers that are paid as any other teacher in the province – according to their qualifications," he said.
The Tories have said that first nations per-pupil funding is similar to provincial systems, but the panel disagreed, saying it works out to about 20 per cent less. In order to close this gap, the panel said more needs-based money should be invested in first nations schools.
The panel was established by the Tories and the Assembly of First Nations in June, 2011.
First nations students are among the most likely to drop out of high school, and just 39 per cent of youth between the ages of 20 and 24 living on reserves have completed high school.
National Chief Shawn Atleo said he was encouraged that the report indicated the urgency of rebuilding the first nations education systems. "Now every first nation leader and educator must have the opportunity to reflect on their own path forward," he said in statement.
Many of the recommendations mirror a model developed by the First Nations Education Steering Committee, or FNESC, in British Columbia, which fills some of the roles of ministry of education and a school board.
Debbie Jeffrey, executive director of FNESC, was supportive of the panel's call for increased funding and accountability. She stopped short, however, of endorsing the formation of a national commission. "That's a pan-aboriginal approach, but we're all distinct."
Recognizing that studies have shown teachers are the single biggest in-school influence on student learning, the panel called for an increase in funding for the 2012-13 fiscal year. Currently, first nations schools often serve as training grounds for new teachers because administrators can't afford to keep experienced staff.
The panel also calls for the establishment of a special fund focused on education infrastructure, a full inventory for infrastructure needs, a 10-year capital plan and the allocation of an emergency fund.