After more than two decades of advocacy by a host of dedicated people, school choice will become a reality in Kentucky in the coming months, as newly-passed legislation is translated into an Education Opportunity Accounts Program.
The bishops of Kentucky celebrated this long-awaited accomplishment May 19 by recognizing the man they say brought the legislation home.
Charles H. Leis, president of EdChoice KY, took the reins on school choice in 2016 after retiring from a business career. He led the charge full-time, with the same vigor he gave to his career, according to those who observed his work.
“You’ve given your life these years to this work,” Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz told Leis during a brief ceremony to honor him. “Thank you from our hearts for all the good work you have done.”
Archbishop Kurtz, who attended the ceremony remotely, said Leis often reminded the bishops, “ ‘When it gets passed, that’s when the work will begin.’ Well, our work begins only because Charlie’s work never stopped.”
The Education Opportunity Accounts Program will enable families to receive grants for education services, funded by donations made to certain nonprofits, such as the Catholic Education Foundation. Individuals and businesses that donate to these organizations will receive a tax credit.
Families statewide can receive assistance to pay for services, such as therapy for special needs children and technology. The bill also gives families who live in counties with a population larger than 90,000 access to need-based tuition assistance for non-public schools.
Leis was quick to say the success of the school-choice legislation was a team effort and credited the efforts of Andrew Vandiver, who worked on the staff of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, and Leisa Schulz, superintendent of schools for the archdiocese. She represented non-public schools in her advocacy for school choice.
Leis also noted how difficult the effort seemed to be at times.
“Every time you turned a corner, another obstacle was there,” he said. “Sometimes I wondered when the curveballs would stop coming.”
But somehow, some of those curveballs — hit just the right way — became home runs.
Bishop William Medley of Owensboro and Bishop John Stowe of Lexington said Leis’ efforts bring hope to their schools. (Bishop Roger Foys of Covington was not in attendance.)
“There’s certainly a lot of hope in our Lexington schools coming out of the pandemic; there’s certainly a lot of need,” said Bishop Stowe, whose diocese has 13 Catholic elementary schools and a Catholic high school.
After hearing that the first school choice legislation was filed in 1998 in Kentucky, Bishop Medley said, “It’s a lesson in patience. I’m certainly glad.” His diocese has 14 Catholic elementary schools and three Catholic high schools.
Leisa Schulz said the legislation passed “in God’s time, not ours.”
Now, she said, “Our Catholic schools can set an example to show the intentions of the legislation.”
Archbishop Kurtz, noting that the parishes of the archdiocese commit one percent of their income to support students in the archdiocese, added that Leis’ effort sets the archdiocese “on the path to be grateful and to be generous.”
“Our focus is not on school survival, but on the opportunity for students to have an education in faith and humanity,” he said.
Leis said he attended Catholic schools throughout his education — from St. Paul School to Bishop David High School to Bellarmine University. His career was in business, but when his son was at Trinity High School, he saw a need for improvement and decided there was a place for business in education, he said.
“I started seeing how you could apply business attributes to these schools, without changing the character … without making it a business,” he said.
“I started seeing how you could apply business attributes to these schools, without changing the character,” he said.
He has served two terms on the Catholic Education Foundation board. When he was tapped to lead EdChoice KY, the vision was for him to bring a business dimension to the effort, rather than a political one, he said.
Vandiver, who focused on legislative advocacy, said at the moments when he felt like giving up, Leis lifted him up.
“Since 2018, we hit some major lows,” Vandiver said. “But Charlie kept me going.”