01/24/2012 03:53 pm ET

Pennsylvania Bishop Joseph McFadden: Totalitarians, Hitler And Mussolini "Would Love" Our Public School System

Religious leaders in Philadelphia are frustrated with the battle over school choice, to the extent that Harrisburg Bishop Joseph McFadden says fascist leaders Hitler and Mussolini "would love" our education system.

"In totalitarian governments, they would love our system," McFadden told WHTM-TV. "This is what Hitler and Mussolini and all those tried to establish a monolith so all the children would be educated in one set of beliefs and one way of doing things."

In response, Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, notes to the Scranton Atheism Examiner that public school systems don't indoctrinate children, as they are told to be neutral on matters of religious belief, whereas Catholic schools can teach Catholic faith. Hoover opposes school voucher programs, in which public dollars could be shifted to pay for low-income students to attend private schools.

"I don't think Hitler would appreciate children learning about free speech or freedom of religion, he also wouldn't appreciate Jewish children being educated." Hoover tells the Examiner, adding that a democratic system of open public school meetings with elected positions is "completely opposite" of a totalitarian government. "Any time someone brings up Hitler in a debate, you know they've lost."

McFadden's comments that public schools, like totalitarian governments, want to teach children only one way of thinking come after Archbishop Charles Chaput announced plans to shutter nearly 50 of its Roman Catholic schools across Philadelphia earlier this month, igniting complaints and protests across the community.

The closures account for about a quarter of the city's Roman Catholic high schools and 30 percent of its elementary schools. The Associated Press reported the rising costs and low school enrollment will displace about 24,000 students.

The closures, and the failure of proposed legislation that would bring more public school students to private Catholic institutions, has ignited a battle both between traditional public schools and private Catholic schools, as well as one among Catholic school leaders and Archbishop Charles Chaput.

"We can't afford to fool ourselves," Chaput said at a news conference regarding the closures. "We need an honest response to serious losses that have been happening year after year in some of our schools. And this will continue to happen if we do nothing."

Last October, a school voucher bill passed through the Pennsylvania state Senate that would have allowed funneling more taxpayer money into private or parochial school tuition for children from lower-income families. The bill aimed to help those students avoid struggling public schools while offsetting the high costs of private tuition.

But when the bill arrived in the state House in December, legislators rejected the proposal, to the dismay of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Voucher boosters pulled the bill when it became apparent that the proposal lacked support, and another vote isn't likely to occur until after the next legislative election.

Community members and others in the church turned to pointing their fingers at Chaput and members of the commission for the school closures, blaming them for student displacement and the loss of their beloved alma maters. In his weekly pastoral letter to Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, however, Chaput notes that the Archdiocese staff simply did what they were told -- and the failure of the voucher program is at fault for the Catholic school closings.

"Some Catholics -- too many -- seem to find it easier to criticize their own leaders than to face the fact that they're discriminated against every day of the year," Chaput writes. "They pay once for public schools; then they pay again for the Catholic schools."

Instead of playing the blame game, Chaput calls on Catholics to put pressure on lawmakers to pass voucher legislation.

"School choice may not answer every financial challenge in Catholic education; but vouchers would make a decisive difference. They'd help our schools enormously," he writes. "To put it simply: Vouchers are a matter of parental rights and basic justice."

Voucher programs have recently gained momentum in schools across the country. Shortly after Indiana began the nations broadest school voucher program, thousands of students transferred from public to private schools in August, causing spiked enrollment at Catholic schools that were a hair away from the same fate as Philadelphia and were on the bring of closure for low enrollment.

The initial shift realized what public school advocates feared most: a mass exodus of students from public institutions, and taking with them the public dollars that funded those schools. Public school principals pleaded with parents not to move their children.

But in a reversal, the school voucher law also had some Indiana parents taking their students out of private schools -- placing them in public ones for a year to earn eligibility for the publicly funded program. While the intended moves are temporary, public school educators are hoping that it could also attract more students who are traditionally privately educated to stay in public schools.

"They’ll be in public school for a year, which gives them a great chance to make the sale," state Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma told The Journal Gazette. "The best thing is the families have options and they can select the option that is best for their student."