Archive for April, 2007

And Let It Begin With Me

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

Some 38 years ago a young teacher, who was about to leave for work on a chilly prairie morning with his young wife, suddenly grabbed a manila file folder and carefully printed, in brown ‘magic marker’ the word PEACE.

And he placed this crude ‘sign’ in the kitchen window of their trailer (mobile home, to some).

Little did this teacher know the uproar he apparently caused in the little town of Colfax, Illinois, (pop. 900) by his simple act; done to participate, in his small way, with the Vietnam “Moratorium” that was taking place in far off Washington that day.

All these decades later your correspondent watched, and felt the same hope, tinged with the same sense of futility, as the Saturday crowds marched across Memorial Bridge and to the Pentagon to say ‘No’ to another intractable president.

Notables spoke, crowds cheered, march opponents screamed, banners and flags were hoisted; while the man who can stop it in an instant was probably watching basketball out in the Maryland woods.

Arlington cares about this conflict, as graves continue to be dug and filled, and does its bit in an effort to ‘bring the troops home.’ Home with damaged psyche’s, missing legs or arms, waiting and waiting for the government that seems to have abandoned them; wanting to believe it was worth it.

And what is there to do in the midst of all this? Arlingtonians in some quarters have not been sitting on their hands. For example, Arlingtonians gathered this week at the Unitarian Church on George Mason Drive for Reflections on Four Years of War … to “gather, mourn, hope, and act.” On the 19th, Arlingtonians stood in a silent candlelight vigil at the Clarendon park above the Clarendon Metro station, echoing what was done at the same time and place in March of 2003. Then, it was to stop plans to send troops and bombs; Monday it was to “demonstrate for bringing the troops home now.”

And tonight, March 21, at 7:30pm in the Rosslyn Spectrum Theatre, the Northern Virginia Chapter of the ACLU is hosting a forum on Guantanamo and Habeas Corpus: What Is at Stake? Moderator Jackie Northam, national security correspondent for National Public Radio, will preside over a panel featuring the pro bono attorney for 11 Guantanamo detainees, a Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation, Amnesty International USA’s Advocacy Director for Human Rights and International Justice, and the Majority Counsel for the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.

It’s all a bit overpowering for a former greenhorn from central Illinois. But Arlington offers us many more options than just putting a folder in the window. There are around us so many avenues to express our concern, making it almost an obligation — given that we sit at the locus of international power — to stand and be counted.

Marching isn’t comfortable for many, but standing with a candle, or participating in the habeas corpus public forum, provides doable alternatives than just watching it all unfold on television or in the papers.

We are a caring, peaceful community. We settle our disputes before a County Board that is amazingly cooperative, taking in all points of view before acting.

You have to wonder, “Would this have happened, if public servants as open and accountable as ours had been involved?” Would Arlington natives Stephen Sherman and James D. Blankenbecler still be alive? Would our nation be respected and not hated?

In the 1940s citizens were called upon to act: to save pots and pans, endure rationing, buy bonds and pay higher taxes. Now we are told to go on living, let the soldiers do their work and keep quiet. “If you don’t love America,” a sign waving opposite Saturday’s march read, “then leave it.” If you were of draft age in the late 60’s, you recall a similar refrain, “Love it or leave it.”

But the calling to remedy war, to save young lives as more die each day, is a strong and sacred one. Do we have that calling, that tug of responsibility? Do you? Do I?

We sing at church, “Let there be peace on Earth,” and then comes the refrain that challenges us: let it begin with me.

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

Apples and Oranges

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

A few years back you probably heard about a slogan that had become a law: No Child Left Behind. Catchy. Clever.

However, this slogan that became a federal law turned education upside down in every community and rural setting across the nation. Why?

The presumed good intention behind that law was to assure that each child in school not only has the opportunity to succeed, but must succeed, or Washington would label your school ‘failing’ and could eventually turn it over to someone else to run.

Well, sure. Every child should succeed, shouldn’t they? But, you mean to tell me that our schools are just shuffling kids along, not checking on whether they know how to read and write?

Of course not. We’ve got a splendid system here in Arlington and in thousands of other school districts across the country. And our students are tested all the time: pop quizzes to see if they are prepared for today’s class; unit tests; standardized tests; mid-term tests to be sure each child is ‘getting it,’ and final exams that determine who passes and who flunks.

But this federal law that Congress and the President dumped on us made a long list of new demands. In fact, it makes nearly 40 demands: every child in every subgroup in a school — subgroups such as poor, disabled, racial status, English language ability, and so on — must make something Washington calls “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) every year on just one test. If just one of the subgroups of children in a school doesn’t make a certain percentage increase in that single test score, then that child’s school is labeled ‘failing.’

While that sounds pretty tough, you’ll be stunned to know that the “progress” that’s measured is not each child’s test score from one test day to a later one or to next year’s score. No, this wacky new federal law takes the test scores of this year’s fourth graders and compares them to next year’s fourth graders. So, your school fails if the kids in next year’s class score below what your child’s class got this year.

Imagine taking a test on a new product at work and then having the boss base your performance by comparing what you scored now with what another employee scores next year.

You’ve heard the term, “comparing apples to oranges,” well NCLB has got that comparison down pat.

Oh, there are other ways to fail under NCLB: if less than 95 percent of the children in just one of the sub-categories are tested on that one test day, then the entire school — good grades or not — is labeled failing. Depending on the size of the group, that can mean if just one of your students is sick on testing day, and that drops participation down to 93 percent, your school has failed.

You get the picture; something kooky is going on here.

There’s quite a stew going on in Arlington and in several other school districts in Virginia over yet another part of NCLB.

You see, every child, regardless of ability, must take the same exact test; word for word. That means if you’re relatively new to this country and you don’t know English yet, you still have to take the same test, in English,that every child takes.

Imagine how silly or sad a youngster might feel to have a teacher place in front of him or her a piece of paper filled with words you don’t understand. Take the test, Carlos, Maria. You can’t read it, I know. But, do the best you can.

Reports are made all over the country that students sit and quietly cry at their desks: the teacher has said this is a very important test; that I must do my best. But I can’t read it. School board chair Libby Garvey told the Connection’s Eric Schultz, “It’s just wrong and it’s harmful to kids.”

Washington says, “Ok, you can have a dictionary to look up the words if you don’t understand them.” Not a dictionary in your language, mind you; an English dictionary. Our public school superintendent, Dr. Robert Smith, calls that “a laughable example” of so-called ‘accommodation’ for non-English speakers.

Fail, fail, fail. That’s what NCLB is labeling students, schools and school districts all over this nation. Good schools with exceptional teachers here hold their breaths each year, while they wait to find out if their school “made AYP.” They know it’s based on the apples/oranges comparison; that their non-English kids didn’t understand it; that their special education children also had to take the same test; that it’s unfair. None of that matters. Because if your class, your school doesn’t make that magic AYP number, the papers are going to report that you failed.

A lot of us see a barely hidden agenda here. The far right for years has tried to abolish government aid to public schools. They want to give every child a voucher to attend a private school. Starting with Ronald Reagan, the federal Department of Education even has an Office of Non-Public Education, “which represents the private elementary and secondary school community” at the department. Private schools get representation in the federal government. Yet, they are schools accountable to no one in public; that can refuse to take any student; that can expel a child for any reason. And … they don’t have to take the tests. None of them.

Public education, however, is the birthright of all of our children in this great land. Horace Mann, commonly recognized as the father of public schools in America, saw education as the “wellspring of freedom” and the “ladder of opportunity.” Our second president, James Adams, said “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”

Our children deserve a positive drive to an ever improved public school system; not a Washington scheme, the aim of which is to label children and their schools as failures to be punished. Let’s support our schools in Arlington, so they may continue to be among the best in the nation, bestowing on children of every background the knowledge and truth they need to become a success in life. Move every child forward. Not some apples and some oranges of different sizes. Be fair, Washington. Beware, Arlington.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

Of the People

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

If you look up the word “public” in the dictionary, you find it defined as an adjective meaning “of the people.” There’s something amiss in Arlington these days concerning one of our most valuable assets that alleged to be public.

Recently this column pointed out that WETA, the public radio station, supported by “you, the public,” and no other entity, had decided that “world news” was not its mission, but classical music was. And not just classical music the way the old, familiar, decades-long way WETA had established itself.

No, WETA, at what was apparently an opportune time, had decided to become WGMS, the commercial classical station that had suddenly junked its decades old classical format. WETA embraced WGMS so warmly that it renamed its Hagerstown, Maryland, extension WGMS.

Now, getting back to ‘public.’

During the pledge drives we’ve endured and supported all these years for WETA-FM, announcers constantly reminded us that “it costs us money to bring you ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ and ‘The Writer’s Almanac,’ and ‘Car Talk,’ and ‘Fresh Air;’ so we depend on you, our listeners, to provide the funds to make these programs possible.”

Well, let’s see. ‘Companion’ is gone, as is the ‘Almanac,’ and ditto for Car Talk, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and even the venerable Mary Cliff’s “Traditions” on Saturday nights.

So, why is it again that you need all our money, WETA? You’ve got this big music library and some new WGMS-sounding announcers. Either that means you paid a fortune for WGMS’s cd’s; or you are just raking in our money, now that your former, highly-popular but expensive shows are history.

On the other side of the river, however, and just a few inches up the radio dial, we have a D.C.-based public radio station that has shown, quite specifically, that it does listen to its public; that it recognizes what “of the people” means.

First, they took on Prairie Home Companion and The Writer’s Almanac. Then came that wonderful interview program, Fresh Air. Even Mary Cliff, a WETA exclusive who made Saturday evenings such a joy, was picked up by WAMU.

And now — after being hounded by so many of us who have mourned the loss of Weekend Edition Sunday, that NPR Sunday morning program unmatched in quality, humanity, and downright fun — WAMU has announced it is making room for this Sunday star in its firmament.

So, who is it that has responded to the public lo these many weeks since WETA lost its moorings? Which station has demonstrated its willingness to be ‘of the people’? Who listened to us when we mourned the loss of so many WETA standbys, the ones we had counted on to be a natural part of the public in public radio?

It is WAMU, hands down. I hate to say it; I truly do. WETA was engrained in my public consciousness. It has stood for right and reason and community service.

But, when the time came to demonstrate which station would be an “of the people” station, I’m afraid it’s clear that WAMU takes the prize. WETA-TV, thankfully, retains a solid core of essential programming. Sad to say, WETA-FM has not.

It’s too late to go back and review the terrible decisions. If we’d wanted WGMS, we’d have listened to it. No, WETA was more than just WGMS without the commercials. Today, that’s all it appears to be. Farewell, old friend. I don’t know who you are anymore. Still, it’s sad to see you go.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

We’ve Been Kicked…by Route 66

Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

The open wound called I-66, gouged through Arlington’s heart more than 30 years ago, came not from citizen demand but from economic and political overlords with dreams of development, profits and campaign contributions.

Those same folks are back again, as noted by the Connection’s David Schultz, with what they call their great “Idea 66” to widen this behemoth, because, argued by a staff person of Rep. Frank Wolf’s, “We’ve got to do something to relieve traffic.”

We know Wolf as the member of Congress who used to represent us and our needs. Well, Arlington is ancient history in his book; and the future he cares about is in his new district, stretching from Fairfax to Loudon, Fauquier and other far-out regions, some recognized as among the fastest growing counties in the nation. And his constituents, no doubt assisted by moneyed developers, are eager to get to DC, or wherever they’re going, by racing through this little pipsqueak called Arlington, if the naysayers there will just shut up and let the big cranes roll.

Our opposition to 66 has stuck in the craw of interest-dominated lawmakers since its inception; notably when then-Gov. Mills Godwin in 1975 personally held up any release of funds for Metro in Virginia unless 66 through Arlington was approved.

So, he and his cronies got 66 and it ate up acres of charm, replacing it with the 24-hour roar of traffic in our ears and tons of hydrocarbons into our children’s lungs. To give you some idea of what those with the political power and money did to us, just look at the photographs of some of the original construction of 66 at the Arlington Citizens for Sensible Transportation website:

But this is 2007 and Wolf, as his aide proclaimed, has “got to do something to relieve traffic.” What those folks did to our region, with the explosive and poorly planned developments and megatons of concrete, are not the responsibility of us Arlingtonians. Still, they rolled over us. They got their road and metro. Now, they want more.

The idea behind Metro was to lure people off of the roads and onto the trains, not expand the roads in the future. What reason is there to jump on the train, if you know your federal representative is going to ram through some more lanes to ‘whisk’ you to your far-out home?

For my mind, they ought to plow under the highway and put in some parkland. After all, Arlington is about ‘calming’ traffic these days, not ballooning it. We narrow neighborhood streets and even put boulevards in the middle of more-traveled roads. We’ve put a speed-activated stoplight at the bottom two hills, on what might be argued is another transportation corridor through Arlington, Wilson Boulevard.

Admittedly, there’s no turning back. But what allows these political and rich big boys to again transform Arlington? The highway exists and we live with it. But, we don’t have to live with what’s being proposed.

This expansion, which the “Idea” folks say is going to be “within the footprint” of the existing 66, is going to gobble up the Custis Trail and parks on both sides of the road. There’s no way any expansion can avoid destroying bike paths and valuable Four Mile Run ecosystems.

Remember when a fellow named Reagan fired the air traffic controllers for violating their “solemn oath” not to strike against the government? How does that logic on promises differ from Wolf’s attempt to violate the reasoned decision made by President Ford’s Transportation Secretary, William Coleman, who wrote in 1977 that Metro would be constructed between the two sections and that the road would henceforth be limited to four lanes of traffic. Reagan said “they broke a solemn oath.” What are today’s lawmakers doing to the Coleman ruling?

What would widening 66 accomplish? Instead of dumping two lanes of traffic into DC the road will screech to a halt to shoehorn three lanes into the District. What kind of sense does that make?

According to then-County Board Chair Chris Zimmerman, “the long term result of widening I-66 from four lanes to six would surely be swapping a four lane traffic tie-up for a six lane traffic tie up.”

Last month the federal and Virginia transportation departments conducted another of those ‘hearings’ that, in effect, tell people about the decisions that have already been made. But that’s no reason to give up. We need to ask Gov. Kaine to reconsider the project. We can continue to write Congressman Jim Moran and our U.S. senators; maybe the addition of Jim Webb to our delegation will offer some hope.

And stay informed on the developments via the sensible transportation coalition at Yogi famously said, “It ain’t over till it’s over,” and until the earth diggers and monster cranes are in place, we can still put up a fight.

Our Arlington and our way of life will not easily be trampled by purveyors of power.

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.