In what was surely no easy feat, Democratic state Rep. Brian Sims convinced his Republican counterparts to drop what Sims said was an anti-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) amendment in recently-announced House Bill 468 – otherwise known as the Pennsylvania Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program.
This came shortly before Sims offered an impassioned plea from the House floor earlier this week, in which he urged fellow legislators to retain abortion coverage language in the state’s version of the Affordable Health Care Act.
According to Sims, HB 468 – originally introduced by Republican state Rep. Jim Cox and currently being debated in the House – was first drafted to create tax relief on behalf of the families of deceased individuals, but kept out of that provision were the same-sex couples who would otherwise be eligible to receive the compensation, except for their marital status.
Sims’ compromise amendment, which the House adopted during last Tuesday’s session, added “domestic partner” language into the bill. He believes his amendment will impact thousands of Pennsylvania residents who choose not to be married or were legally barred from marriage.
Under House Bill 468, Sims contends, thousands of same-sex couples would not qualify for the program; now, with his compromise amendment, any executor of administrator of a will can apply for the rebate on behalf of the deceased partner’s estate.
Cox, Sims said, agreed to alter the language as to not discriminate against those in domestic partnerships.
“Supporting legislation which includes ‘domestic partners’ isn’t going to create more gay people, and it won’t even create more gay relationships; they exist,” Sims said, citing the 2010 Census report that counted 283,000 unmarried same-sex couples in the state. “What we have here is an issue of simple fairness and I’m very pleased that virtually all of my colleagues recognized that purposefully excluding ‘domestic partners’ in this bill would have forced countless Pennsylvanians to lose their homes after losing their loved ones.”
Sims has a long history of supporting the rights of the LGBT community, and with his election last year, became the first openly gay state legislator in Pennsylvania. He said he is looking for other legislation that would further define domestic partners under state laws.
Sims may have an alley in City Councilman James Kenney, himself a longtime supporter of equality for the local LGBT community. Kenney has introduced several pro-LGBT bills in Council, including one that would guarantee partners of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people the right to visit their loved ones in hospitals and make medical decisions for them.
Kenney voiced support for Sims’ legislation, noting that the fight for LGBT equality historically follows a similar trajectory with other social calls for fairness.
“In general, equal protection under the law means equal protection under the law,” he said. “There should be no obstacle, be it race, gender or preference, that doesn’t allow them to participate fully in the program.
“We’ve been moving down this road since women were trying to get the right to vote, and since African Americans got to decide where they want to work and go to school,” Kenney added. “This is just the next wave of providing equality for all.”
When the 19th Amendment passed on August 26, 1920 that gave women the right to vote as the apex of the Woman’s Suffrage movement, little did trailblazers such as Lydia Taft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott know that their early efforts would be celebrated on such a grand scale.
That celebration of the 19th Amendment – “Vision 2020” – is still several years off, but that hasn’t stopped officials, both locally and nationally, from preparing to celebrate 100 years of women attaining the right to vote.
Drexel University College of Medicine’s Institute for Women’s Health and Leadership is the driving force behind Vision 2020, and beginning in 2010, it has embarked on a ten-year campaign to propel women’s rights – including social and economic freedoms – by 2020. The campaign has been and will continue to be national in scope, as Vision 2020 has participants in all 50 states, more than 60 national allied organizations, and has an extended reach of 20 million women and girls.
“We’ve plan to have the largest gathering of women leaders in U.S. history here in 2020,” said Vision 2020 Co-Chair Lynn Yaekel. “Over the next seven years, we’ll be working hard to achieve our goals of women’s economic security and pay equity, more women in senior leadership positions, family-friendly workplace policies, civic engagement and increased women voting.
“In fact, in 2020, which will be a presidential election year, our goal is 100 percent turnout of eligible women voters.”
Officials with financial power Wells Fargo, the founding sponsor of Vision 2020, are just as excited to take part in what will turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime celebration.
“Wells Fargo is pleased to support Vision 2020’s Education Initiative as Founding Sponsor,” said Wells Fargo Executive Vice President Susanne Svizeny during the sponsorship announcement last month. “This initiative aligns with our long-standing commitment to women as team members and customers, and to our philanthropic focus on education. We are excited that our $50,000 grant will enable Vision 2020 to develop the plan for educational resources for teachers and national ally organizations to educate young people to value gender equality, shared leadership, and civic engagement.”
Only a few countries preceded America in granting their female citizens the right to vote. For example, the Cook Islands allowed women to vote in 1893, Australia in 1902, the Kingdom of Denmark in 1915 and Austria in 1919; in contrast, there are a few countries and lands – including Curacao, the Falkland Islands, Guam, French Polynesia, Guernsey and Sint Maarten – that haven’t yet legalized women’s right to vote.
The National Constitution Center will be a major destination point for the festivities, with the celebrations running from April through August 26, 2020 – a date that coincides with the national Women’s Equality Day.
“We are pleased to collaborate with Vision 2020 and celebrate this milestone anniversary in our Constitution’s history,” said National Constitution Center Interim President and CEO Vince Stango. “When our founders wrote the Constitution, women could not vote; today, women are governors, senators, Supreme Court justices and presidential candidates. As America’s town hall and the museum of ‘We the People,’ the Center looks forward to hosting a dynamic exhibition, engaging programming and timely discussions about gender equality and the ever-growing role that women play as our nation’s leaders.”
Philadelphia is often considered the seat of American democracy and one of the few truly historical cities in the country, so it seemed only fitting that Philadelphia would host such a celebration, Mayor Michael Nutter said.
“Philadelphia’s history is interlaced with women’s history and I am proud Philadelphia will show the nation what women’s equality means in 202,” Nutter said via a statement released by the National Constitution Center. “Philadelphia is ideally situated for visitors from around the country to join this celebration and experience our city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”
The GreenLight Fund – an umbrella nonprofit organization that raises funds for groups that assist low-income and at-risk families and the communities in which they reside – will approve funds for the expansion of two grassroots operations into Philadelphia.
Through its connection with the Corporation for National and Community Service and its Social Innovation Fund, GreenLight has invested a total of $2.3 million into the expansion of Year Up and Single Stop USA.
Year Up is a Boston-based pro-education unit with a stated mission of providing urban young adults with the skills, experience and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.
“We achieve this mission through a high support, high expectation model that combines marketable job skills, stipends, internships and college credits,” read an explanatory note provided by Year Up. “Our holistic approach focuses on students’ professional and personal development to place these young adults on a viable path to economic self-sufficiency.”
According to GreenLight, the funds will allow Year Up to expand its one-year Professional training Corps Program to Philadelphia, and will provide its funding for the next five years. Its goal is to help 1,200 disconnected young adults ages 18-24 enroll in school and prepare for entry into the workforce.
New York-based Single Stop USA, a program built around getting at-risk students to and through college, is active in seven states, and with GreenLight funding, will extend to Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).
Single Stop USA helps targeted students and their families through college by contacting them with financial aid resources such as tax credits and public benefits and legal counseling. Organizers hope to reach as many as 1,000 CCP students.
Year Up and Single Stop USA will be the first organizations supported by GreenLight Fund in Philadelphia, which came into existence in 2012 via grants and supports from the William Penn Foundation, the Barra Foundation and the Bank of America Foundation.
GreenLight Fund officials chose Philadelphia for the two programs when it came down to which could do the most good with the funds, said GreenLight Fund Philadelphia Executive Director Matt Joyce.
“We were thrilled with the quality and caliber of applicants. It was a competitive selection process, and came down to making the best match between innovative programs and priority needs in Philadelphia,” Joyce said. “Year Up and Single Stop USA emerged as organizations with tremendous results that will have both deep and far- reaching impact on students and young adults in Philadelphia.”
GreenLight’s selection advisory council thoroughly vetted both Year Up and Single Stop USA, and came away impressed. The Council was created by GreenLight to identify critical issues that affect low-income communities; the positive impact of these respective organizations also weighed heavily into the decision, said Council co-chair and first-round capital Managing Director Josh Kopelman.
“GreenLight ran an intensive and thoughtful diligence process and our council is thrilled with the outcome,” Kopelman said. “Year Up and Single Stop USA are unique and innovative programs with sustainable models that we believe can grow their impact quickly and successfully in Philadelphia.”
While education officials, unions, politicians and vocal parent groups take sides in the charter school vs. traditional public school debate, Global Leadership Academy Charter School CEO Naomi Johnson Booker is all about the business of preparing her charges to excel in tomorrow’s worldwide business landscape, while instilling in them a sense of self.
Under Booker’s leadership, the upper grades of the West Philadelphia-located GLA are set to embark on a series of life-changing trips, starting this week as sixth-grade students travel first to Atlanta and then to Tennessee, following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., from his birthplace to the site of his assassination.
Next week, GLA’s seventh-grade students will follow the Underground Railroad up through Niagara Falls to Canada before swinging back down and visiting the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati. Capping the excursions will be the eighth-grade trip to the Bahamas, in which students will trace the link from Africa to the Caribbean and then to North America.
All to fill the students with pride and purpose, Booker said.
“As a people, we have to know our histories so we can move forward, and since social studies is becoming more global, we also study the country and world and what really happened to us in America,” she said, noting that students must have passports by the seventh grade, and returning eighth-grade students must present their discoveries in a concise report. “In sixth grade, the students study the Civil Rights Movement, and they are in class from December through the spring. And since this is an expeditionary school, we travel.”
Seventh-grade GLA students, as they study the Underground Railroad, will also take in locally connected historical places, including the Belmont Mansion, which was a stop on the pathway to freedom.
“Next week, students will take a bus to Canada and travel the route that Harriet Tubman traveled, and then go through Detroit,” Booker said, adding that for the first time, parents and others will be able to follow the classes virtually, as students will be continually tweeting during their excursions.
GLA, located at 46th Street and Girard Avenue, is presently a K-8 school, but Booker hopes to expand its offering to 12th grade; and while she would rather not wade into the charter vs. public debate, she does point out the services and provisions cut from the School District of Philadelphia’s schools are immovable from her budget.
“I’m a think-outside-the-box type of person, and the things I do now [with GLA], I couldn’t do because of certain things the district doesn’t allow [principals] to do,” said Booker, who has more than 30 years of experience working in the traditional public school system, for a time serving as regional superintendent. “But when it comes to charter schools, some people have allowed some things to happen, and nothing is perfect, but on a general level, most charters are doing the same thing, and that’s providing education in their way for their children.”
GLA also excels, Booker said, because of its minute attention to the whole child, and not trying to educate via standards implemented by those who don’t directly deal with these children or fully understand the environment from which they come.
“I have a nurse every day, from 9 to 3, and the reason is because that is a ‘have-to,’ a very necessary thing. We also have art, music, gym and technology, because I believe those are non-negotiable items in my budget,” she said, noting that in this whole debate, she is for the critique and closure of any school – public, charter, cyber charter, parochial or private – that fails to reach and teach its students. “We offer them reading, writing, math and foreign languages because children learn in a variety of ways, and not just in one box.
“There are plenty of good public schools, and if you can get your child into Masterman, Girls’ High or Central, then fine; but what about the people trapped in failing schools?” Booker continued, adding that when she took over GLA, it wasn’t the academic powerhouse it is now. “I personally feel like [charter school operators] bear the brunt of the [argument], because we are doing what’s right and we’ve been in business for 15 years. How long has the district been in business? I raised three daughters, and I did with this school what I would do for my own children.”
The School District of Philadelphia appears to be situating itself to confront the proliferation of cyber charter schools by announcing its own such virtual learning experience.
Opening for the 2013-14 academic year, the Philadelphia Virtual Academy – PVA – will become yet another option for families with children in grades 6 through 12. This appears to be the first time the district has owned, operated and facilitated its own cyber charter school, and according to the district, aligns with District Superintendent Dr. William Hite Jr.’s plan for a more fluid district that has as many educational offerings as possible.
“Over 5,000 School District of Philadelphia students currently attend one of Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools. Our goal is to draw back to the district by making Philadelphia Virtual Academy the preferred choice for parents and students who want a quality online education,” Hite said. “We believe that we can provide a superior online educational experience.”
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as of the beginning of the current school year there are 16 operating cyber charter schools in the state, with five providers – ACT Academy, ASPIRA Bilingual, Education Plus Academy, Esperanza and Solomon Charter School – are based in Philadelphia. And the district may want to expedite matters, considering that eight new charter school operators submitted last November applications to the education department. PDE Secretary Ron Tomalis has denied all eight applicants, but they are free to resubmit applications, something most potential charter and cyber charter operators do.
The plan has a financial component as well, as each student that attends PVA will save the district 45 percent in per-pupil expenses.
The Chester County Intermediate Unit will be the district’s primary partner in the PVA endeavor; CCIU has experience in the realm, as it operated 38 other virtual academies. A selling point is that students can earn a district diploma at home and will have access to physical learning centers. Students at PVA will be taught by a state-certified teacher, will receive a laptop computer, along with high-speed internet access; PVA students will also be allowed to participate in all district-sponsored athletics and extracurricular activities, and will be taught by state-certified teachers.
“Much of the PVA core curriculum was developed by our Pennsylvania certified teachers based upon the Pennsylvania state standards. In order to provide students with a diverse selection of course offerings, PVA may also use other course vendors who have been vetted for quality,” according to PVA’s informational site. “This allows teachers to individualize the curriculum for students’ varying abilities and learning styles. Classes are available in a variety of ability levels, including anchors/foundation, college prep, and honors. AP courses are offered through selected providers.”
The school will initially offer open enrollment, and the district will host a series of PVA-related open houses, the next two occurring at 6 p.m. on Wednesday May 8 at the district’s Education Center, 440 N. broad St., and at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15 at Kensington CAPA High School, 1901 N. Front St; parents must secure district consent before transferring their child for enrollment.
In embracing its nature, PVA will also host a series of virtual open houses at http://vclass.cciu.org; the first will begin at 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 2.
“We are very excited about the opportunity to partner with the district in this online venture. There is a growing movement in school districts across Pennsylvania to come up with alternatives to cyber charter schools,” said CCIU Executive Director Dr. Joseph O’Brien. “School district virtual academies fill the gap between brick-and-mortar public schools and cyber charter schools by providing online classes to attract students back to their local school districts and provide them with a quality education and the benefits and supports of their local school district.”