An editorial in today's Winnipeg Free Press mentions Free to Learn:

Giving natives a chance

Some native leaders have reacted politically, predictably, to the suggestion they give up their control of funding for post-secondary education of band members. Author and businessman Calvin Helin says the current funding program is broken, a barrier for many youth who hope to go to university or college.

Mr. Helin (see column on this page) proposes setting up funds for individual kids, in place of the current federally funded program administered by the bands. At birth, each child would have a $4,000 education trust that would grow by $3,000 for each year completed from grades 6 to 12. That money would be held to pay tuition and other expenses for those who enrol in a post-secondary school.

The Assembly of First Nation's national chief, Shawn Atleo, has bristled at the idea. The problem with the current program, he believes, is not band control but underfunding. But as Mr. Helin points out in his co-authored piece published by the Macdonald Laurier Institute, the funding problems go beyond the fact the program has been held at a two per cent increase annually. The post-secondary money transferred to bands is used at their discretion; any surplus can be spent for other purposes. Waiting lists exist, surpluses are common and there is evidence of nepotism and favouritism in distribution of the funds. As Mr. Helin points out, allowing bands struggling to meet their expenses to redirect surpluses will shortchange students.

Courts have ruled that post-secondary education is not a treaty right. Canadians are assisted in post-secondary education through public funding, and government grant and loan programs. Funding to First Nations students recognizes the value of promoting higher education and the benefits that follow.

Canada's high school graduation rate for status Indians is four times lower than non-aboriginals -- 40 per cent for First Nations people aged 20 to 24 living on reserve; 28 per cent in Manitoba. There is a huge gap in post-secondary education attainment between other Canadians and First Nations people.

Establishing an education fund for each child, and increasing it the closer he or she gets to Grade 12, ensures money will be there when needed. It can be a real incentive to finish high school.

Native politicians should not dismiss this idea out of hand. It should be discussed with parents and youth, who benefit most from a future enlarged by a higher education.

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