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Friday, March 14, 2014

eLearning Funding from AANDC in Jeopardy across Canada: Inequity all Around, and Students will Lose!


I wrote this article recently for the State of the Nation: K-12 Online Learning in Canada, by Michael K Barbour, December 2013. I felt with recent developments with AANDC, that the timing was right to blog about this today. 

Study after study tells a similar story across Canada about the low graduation rates among our First Nation population. From 1995 to 2010, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) has funded education at approximately the same level from year to year, with little or no change in the graduation rates for on-reserve students. It remains around 35% nationally. Over 106,000 First Nation students during that period did not receive a high school diploma. Many of these students never enter the workforce because they do not have a high school diploma as a minimum requirement for many of the trades and skilled labour jobs. This in turn costs the Federal government more by way of social assistance. 

Each year AANDC reviews their spending and measures it up against the graduation success rates. They want to see better results. But as First Nations people, we want better results too. However, there are no easy solutions to address these challenges. Some might think that the fix is a First Nations Education Act. While we would not disagree that standards need to be implemented to ensure our children receive a quality education, the methodology for implementation has been wrong spirited. A collaborative approach  is necessary, with First Nation education specialists taking the lead for dialogue and development.  AANDC Minister Bernard Valcourt in the House of Commons stated on November 22, 2013 that instead of throwing money at the problem, we are suggesting that we work together to find a solution that will bring about results. Working together is not unilaterally determining  how the funding will be dispersed to educational authorities and service providers, before legislation and policy is even developed and vetted through Parliament. 

When it comes to eLearning funding, the landscape becomes more complicated than standard BOFF (Band Operated Funding Formula) funding that each of the First Nation schools receives to operate.  Keewaytinook Internet High School (KiHS) receives nominal roll funding for each of the students they have enrolled with their program. Prior to KiHS delivering online classes, most of their students would have had to leave the community. KiHS delivers a full program to their students. Wapaskwa Virtual Collegiate has received funding through New Paths for Education funding since its inception. It was created primarily to supplement local school programming.  Credenda was originally funded based upon actual expenses up until 2013. How AANDC funded Credenda was based on the percentage of FN student classes out of the total number of classes. If Credenda had 75% of the student classes being FN’s, then AANDC reimbursed 75% of the high school budget. 

However, in 2013, AANDC changed how they funded Credenda Virtual High School. This change was precipitated by the shift in their own thinking about funding.  In their documentation to Credenda, they stated  that eLearning was considered a method of delivery, and that Virtual High Schools (VHSs) that deliver eLearning are not considered to be band operated schools. In fact, they suggested that VHSs do not have any students that meet the requirements of the standard nominal roll process which is applied to Band Operated, Provincial, Private or Independent Schools. As a result, AANDC does not believe they have a legal obligation to fund VHSs or to use the standard tuition methodology or nominal roll processes to determine funding levels.

In order to ensure First Nation students have access to specific classes, AANDC did make the decision to support the utilization of VHSs. However, in order to continue this practice, they needed to draft specific guidelines in order to continue to support this alternative delivery method while ensuring value for money and control over program costs. As part of the agreement, they established the following guidelines: 

Eligibility: According to AANDC a VHS can receive funding for course fees for a student, if a student is enrolled in and attending a band-operated school in Saskatchewan recognized by the Province of Saskatchewan; has an established pattern of attendance (minimum 50% attendance), and attending on the last instructional day of the census dates; is aged 4 to 21 years on December 31 of the school year and be in grades 7 through 12 and; is ordinarily resident on a Saskatchewan reserve. Ironically, even though VHSs are not considered to be band operated schools, they are still required to follow the standard eligibility requirements for all band funded schools. 

Furthermore, AANDC requires that all students must be taking the majority of their classes at their local band operated school and are only enrolled in no more than 40%  of their total classes offered by the VHS.  Virtual High Schools are eligible for funding to provide courses and support for students residing on Saskatchewan First Nations, in grades 7, 8 & 9, for maths and science classes and students in grades 10, 11 & 12, for literacy, maths and science classes. The band operated schools must have a certified site teacher in place to supervise the students. The VHS will not receive funding from AANDC for a course where the band operated school already provides the class at its band operated school. This last part is rather shortsighted  on the part of AANDC, since a student who may not successfully complete a class in the first term and will not be funded to take their class from the VHS and only short one class for graduation purposes. As a result, the student is often required to return the following fall and take the class along with two additional classes, in order for the local band operated school to receive full nominal roll funding for the year, instead of paying for one additional class with the VHS in the previous term or the student does not take the class and does not receive their Diploma.  The VHS also does not receive funding for classes outside the maths, sciences or literacy, such as Psychology 30, even though the student may require the class to graduate and move on to university and the class is not offered by the on reserve school.

AANDC will not fund students who live on reserve but attend a provincial, private or independent school and are taking classes via a Virtual High School or if the student is home schooled, even if on reserve.

AANDC now funds VHSs in Saskatchewan based on the tuition rate of the nearest provincial school to the student residence. This means that with 18 public school divisions in Saskatchewan, and each tuition agreement different with the provincial government, depending on where the students are living is the class rate paid by AANDC for each student. This makes it more and more difficult to administer. Accuracy in data management is imperative, otherwise, AANDC disallows the funding for a student if the information is not correctly entered or invoiced properly. 

Further to this, Credenda received a letter from AANDC detailing their role and involvement in a supporting Credenda since 2005. In the letter they added that due to the proposed education legislation, which will impact Regional funding methodologies and processes. To that end, we anticipate that the resulting governance structures will secure and pay for e-Learnìng services directly through a method of their own choosing using existing education resources, not unlike Provincial models. We anticipate draft legislation by the end of this summer and potential implementation beginning September 2014, at which time AANDC will work towards providing all education resources directly to First Nation or education authorities.

However, they stated that they would… work with Credenda towards a new funding arrangement, for the period of September 1, 2013 to August 31, 2014, based on the revised AANDC VHS management regime. Regional staff will meet with Credenda representatives to again clarify eligible students and classes, and the new delivery and reporting requirements.

As discussed at our May 16, 2013 meeting, we advise Credenda that it should assess how it will work with First Nations to transition to a direct fee-for-service model. We expect that, as of September 1, 2014, AANDC will no longer make direct payments to Credenda or any other service provider as AANDC will provide resources directly to First Nations or educational authorities, whom are in the best position to make decisions on the educational needs of children in Band-Operated schools.

Suggesting that our agreement will cease due to proposed legislation, before a draft legislation has even been produced, seems rather presumptuous on the part of AANDC. They appear eager to find ways out of supporting students from receiving equitable access to subject specialists and course content. If we are to address the low achievement results across Canada, the last thing we should do is reduce the funding for school programs such as Credenda, KiHS, and Wapaskwa. 

I'll update you next week. 


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