10/02/2012 02:11 EDT | Updated 12/02/2012 05:12 EST

First Nations education not underfunded, figures suggest

Aboriginal Affairs is fighting back against its critics, releasing new calculations that show native students receive just as much, if not more, funding as non-aboriginals for schooling.

The federal government has been under fire from aboriginal and human rights groups and opposition critics for underfunding First Nations education.

Last year, all parties agreed to fix the problem and committed to ending inequalities between native and non-native primary and secondary school systems.

But in a backgrounder attached to a Tuesday announcement on building new schools, government officials attached a raft of calculations that suggest student funding is already at par.

Aboriginal Affairs says it spent an average of $13,542 for each student in the 2010-2011 school year — not including money for infrastructure and building maintenance.

The amounts vary by province. First Nations kids in the Atlantic provinces get $14,505 apiece, while Saskatchewan students get $12,159, the government research says.

That compares to a national per-student average of $10,439 in 2009, according to Statistics Canada.

But it contradicts data from the AFN that shows First Nations receive about $7,101 for each student, on average.

Feds funding school infrastructure

Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations have both made education a top priority, working together to strike a plan for better funding and new governance.

The federal budget included $275 million for school infrastructure and early literacy.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said Tuesday that part of that money will go towards building three new schools on reserves this year and renovating five others in the future.

The new schools are to be built in the some of the country's neediest communities, in Pikangikum and Fort Severn in Northern Ontario, as well as Shamattawa in Manitoba.

A coroner's report into youth suicide in Pikangikum highlighted the lack of a proper school as one of the key weaknesses in that community. And many communities complain that their schools are falling apart, mouldy, poorly equipped and understaffed.

Part of the new funding will go towards "bundling" together the construction work in the hopes of achieving some economies of scale, Duncan said.

And another part of the money will go to proposals that help native bands build the expertise they need to eventually take control of their education systems.

"Our government continues to take concrete steps to improving educational outcomes for First Nation students," Duncan said in a statement.

"Our innovative approach to these additional funds builds on the $1.7 billion our government invests annually in First Nation elementary and secondary education and will ensure that more First Nation students get the education they need so they can pursue the same opportunities available to all Canadian students."

The government has committed to passing legislation by 2014 that would revamp the First Nations education system and set up school-board-like arrangements that would give First Nations regions more control over curriculum and schooling in general.

The $275 million in funding is seen as the first step towards that goal.