Rebecca Whitford had a spotless 25-year record as an elementary school teacher, the last 15 in Stafford County—never a reprimand or any hint of trouble, and solidly supported by parents, students, and administrators.
Then one day in May 2017, the Stafford Education Association member sent a text message.
It was only her second year of teaching third grade since the Standards of Learning tests had been implemented; she and her team were prepping for the math section, having recently taken the reading test. During a conversation with a teacher from outside Stafford at home during the Memorial Day weekend, the other teacher mentioned that children most often make mistakes in areas such as elapsed time, fractions, and adding and counting money.
Those items are hardly a secret. “They’re all listed on the State Board of Education website as strands that must be taught and will be on the test,” says Cathie Lee, a VEA staff attorney.
Whitford texted her teammates, reminding them to review those topics with their students, and mentioned that “a little birdie” had told her. “It changed my life,” she says now.
She hit “send” and then enjoyed the rest of the holiday weekend. Nothing was said on the Tuesday she came back to school, but Wednesday she was summoned to a meeting with her principal and a local SOL representative. There, she was questioned about the text, the source of her information (which she chooses not to reveal to this day), and why she’d sent the message. The text had been reported by a colleague.
“I’ve never cheated in my life,” Whitford says, “and there was no reason for me to cheat on the SOLs. I’ve never been intimidated by my students’ test scores. I know I’m a good teacher and my boss and my students’ parents know it, too. I’m very passionate about my work.”
However, immediately after the meeting she was asked to write and sign a letter stating exactly what she’d done. Following that, she was given a letter advising her that she was now on leave, with pay, and suggesting that she not return to school property until after her case was resolved. She was allowed to get her things from her classroom (her principal honored her request to have the students leave the room first), and shown out.
Later, she learned that she’d been recommended for dismissal from her job and revocation of her teaching license for violation of secure testing procedures.
Thus began a lengthy process of hearings and meetings that lasted until March 2018 and resulted in Whitford being fired by Stafford County and having her teaching license suspended for the rest of that school year. During the protracted legal activities, she worked as a tutor and in Spotsylvania County as a substitute teacher. She also had three teaching job offers, but was hesitant to bring a new employer into the still-unresolved proceedings.
The school division came after Whitford hard, seeking not only her termination but the permanent revocation of her teaching license. Steady advocacy on Whitford’s behalf by both Lee and a VEA-provided attorney staved off the permanent loss of her license, in effect saving her career. Her case was also buoyed by the appearance of 22 witnesses who showed up at a public hearing to testify on her behalf.
“I had a list of 50,” Whitford says, visibly moved by the outpouring of support she received, “but they wouldn’t let that many participate. People I didn’t even know wanted to speak for me.” Members of the Stafford Education Association wore red to show that they were behind her, and her colleagues rallied to her side.
“If you fire her,” a fellow teacher told the county’s school board, “how are we supposed to prepare for SOL tests? When students take the SAT, you always look at the questions that have been most difficult on past tests.”
In the end, though, the school board did choose to fire Whitford. Today, however, with all the legal business settled and behind her, she has her license again and was quickly hired to teach second grade in Spotsylvania County, where she’s delighted to have her professional life back.
“I am happy to be back doing what I love to do, helping children learn and be the best that they can be,” she says. “It’s all I was ever trying to do.”
The whole process was an extremely painful ordeal for Whitford and so VEA’s Lee, members of the Stafford and Spotsylvania education associations, VEA’s government relations team, Whitford’s UniServ Directors, and others decided that no other Virginia teacher should ever have to endure again what she went through.
After two huge, Association-driven changes, it’s unlikely that any ever will.
First, VEA initiated legislation that’s come to be known as the “Rebecca Bill.” It sailed through the 2019 General Assembly and will become law July 1. As school law was previously written, school boards had only two choices in teacher license proceedings: revocation or suspension, both very harsh measures. The Rebecca Bill (see accompanying box), which was carried by Delegate Bob Thomas of Stafford, adds a reprimand option, which doesn’t directly affect a teacher’s license.
“This is a huge win,” says Lee. “Every other profession has options short of taking away someone’s license, like recommending continuing education or treatment, in cases of substance abuse. Teachers had not been afforded that possibility.”
She notes that the new option is especially important in light of a seemingly more punitive environment for teachers that’s developed in recent years. During the 2016-17 school year, petitions to suspend or revoke teacher licenses at the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) grew an alarming 62 percent from the previous year.
Whitford is delighted with the legislative win. “I’m so proud of the way so many people supported me,” she says, “and how they turned a bad situation into something that will now benefit all teachers in Virginia.”
The process Whitford had to go through also underscored how the license hearing process at the State Board of Education has been stacked against teachers. The teacher whose license is in jeopardy has had to go first, followed by the prosecution, and the teacher’s attorney had no chance to cross-examine prosecution witnesses. Further, the prosecutor was involved in the panel’s deliberations.
“There has been no impartial decision-maker,” says VEA’s Lee. “That’s not the way this is supposed to work.”
The Association kicked off a process, beginning with VDOE staff and later including State Board of Education members, to get the hearing procedures changed to provide basic due process for teachers. Along the way, VEA staffers met with Attorney General Mark Herring and members of his staff to make the case for more equitable procedures.
The result? As of last November, in license hearings the VDOE must present its case first and has the burden of proof. Teachers’ representatives can cross-examine witnesses, there is an impartial fact-finding panel, and the State Superintendent can no longer participate in deliberations at the final hearing before the Board of Education—all changes that Lee calls “absolutely tremendous” for teachers.
‘Rebecca’s Bill’ Makes it the Law
The following is an excerpt of a Code of Virginia section affected by House Bill 2325, the “Rebecca Bill,” which deals with the discipline of school board employees. Words in italics are changes to the Code put in place by the bill.
A. The Board of Education may (i) issue written reprimand to or (ii) suspend or revoke the administrative or teaching license of any holder of a Board-issued administrative or teaching license who knowingly and willfully commits any of the following acts related to secure mandatory tests administered to students as required by this title or by the Board of Education:
For the purposes of this section, “secure test” means an item, question, or test that has not been made publicly available by the Department of Education (emphasis ours).