Exclusive Brethren school funding questioned by opposition
Jul 11, 2016 | News | by The Learning Press staff
Labor has called for an investigation into taxpayer funds flowing to schools run by the radical Exclusive Brethren Christian Church.
The church’s six Australia-wide campuses receive $26.6 million in state and federal funding per year - more per student than up to a thousand public schools - despite benefiting from millions in tax-free private donations.
The sect's leader, Bruce Hales, instructs members to maintain an "utter hatred" of the outside world.
Its 15,000 followers in Australia and 43,000 worldwide live in the wider community but are not allowed to eat, drink or have friends outside the group.
Members are banned from attending university, watching TV, listening to the radio, joining non-Brethren clubs or attending sporting events, and their computers are heavily filtered.
It is claimed the Brethren treat women as second-class citizens and members are entirely cut off from family if they leave the group - claims the church denies.
The Brethren schools benefit from many millions of dollars in tax free gifts from followers each year - around three times more than the government funding it receives and a figure which dwarfs the contributions received by other private schools.
Despite eschewing politics, members have donated many thousands of dollars to Liberal Party election campaigns.
Labor’s education spokeswoman Kate Ellis told Fairfax Media there were "sharp questions which needed to be answered" in relation to the church.
"It's simply not acceptable that the Federal Department couldn't explain what is happening here," she said.
"There also needs to be an account of whether the school is meeting all of the required standards in respect to the curriculum and broader student wellbeing."
The federal education department has defended the funding level, saying the donation revenue of Brethren schools "fails as a measure" in establishing public funding levels.
"Under the current funding arrangements for non-government schools, the base funding amount is discounted by a school community's anticipated 'capacity to contribute' which is determined by the school's SES score," said a spokesperson.
A school's SES score is determined by the number of its students with a low socioeconomic background, with a disability, with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background and with a low English proficiency, as well as its size and location.
But MySchool data for Brethren schools shows students are of above average socio-economic backgrounds and there are no students of Aboriginal or non-English speaking background.
Federal education minister Simon Birmingham says that while funding allocation is the responsibility of the states, he is determined to ensure federal funds are used correctly.
Earlier this year, the minister threatened six Islamic schools with funding withdrawal over financial management and curriculum concerns.
"We have demonstrated our determination to do so with strong action against those schools where we believe funds to have been misused," he said.
In 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Australian Tax Office had failed to scrutinise the payment of Brethren schools fees through tax-free donations - a tax loophole unavailable to other Australian parents - amid calls by senator Nick Xenophon for an investigation into the arrangement.
In a statement this week, the church said it has never accepted donations in lieu of school fees and that comparing private school funding with public school funding was "misleading and irrelevant".
It also said: "The curriculum taught is set by the relevant state education authorities and the schools are regularly inspected by education departments."
The church first came to public attention in 2006 when it was found to have spent $370,461 to help fund anti-gay, anti-Green Party, pro-Liberal advertising during the 2004 election in support of John Howard.
Documents tabled at the current NSW ICAC inquiry into Liberal Party donations show Brethren families gifting many thousands of dollars in contributions to the party - despite shunning politics and banning voting as part of a commitment to "withdraw from iniquity".
The inquiry shows 62 separate donors - all known members of the Brethren church - sent donations to the Liberal Party's alleged slush fund, the Free Enterprise Foundation, in the lead up to the 2011 election campaign.
Each donation was in individual amounts of $1500 or less, and appeared on a document labelled ‘Friends’.
According to the NSW Electoral Commission, the Free Enterprise Foundation was used to "channel and disguise" donations "by major political donors, some of whom were prohibited donors" to the Liberal Party.