Virginia education officials are working on developing alternative licensing programs to increase the number of classroom teachers.

State officials said they want to look at ways to make it easier for professionals from non-education backgrounds to become teachers as a way of dealing with the teacher shortage.

But some teachers union officials have reservations about the proposal, saying it could lower standards at a time when the state is demanding more accountability from public schools.

State education officials already were developing a special teacher licensing program for military personnel with teaching experience when the 1999 General Assembly directed the state Board of Education to study alternative licensing for people from non-military backgrounds as well. Education department staff said they hope to present a plan to the board next month.

State officials said that alternative licensing programs could be particularly valuable in recruiting individuals to teach in subject areas where shortages are acute, including math, science, foreign language and special education.

The state also wants to increase the number of male teachers at the elementary level and minority teachers at all levels.

"We want to be able to establish a rich pool of qualified applicants that will enable us to respond to these shortage areas," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Paul D. Stapleton.

Stapleton and other state officials said the alternative programs could be particularly attractive to mid-career professionals, such as those in math- and science-related fields.

"I know that there are scientists and mathematicians and other professionals who are distinguished in their fields who would love to get into teaching as a second career and who would be great in the classroom," said state Board of Education President Kirk T. Schroder.

But John Butterfield, president of the Fairfax Education Association, the county's largest teachers union, said a successful career in science or math doesn't automatically translate into teaching potential.

"Unless they're held to the same rigorous standards . . . . how can we be sure they're qualified to prepare students for these high-stakes tests?" said Butterfield, referring to Virginia's Standards of Learning exams.

"Life experience doesn't necessarily correlate into the skills needed to teach," Butterfield said. "I mean, even a physicist that worked for the National Science Foundation may not have the skills to stand in front of a class of 30 antsy high school students."

Schroder said teachers can't have it both ways--complaining about the teaching shortage but then not wanting state officials to take action to solve the problem.

"One of the major things I've heard from the unions is that we have an immediate need for more teachers," he said. "I don't sense that we have time to just hope the problem takes care of itself."

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that schools nationwide will need to hire 200,000 teachers over the next decade because of retirements and student enrollment growth.

Schroder said the board is not looking at lowering standards for teachers. Any alternative licensing program would target individuals who are highly qualified in their chosen field and may simply need course work in teaching methods, he said. As long as state officials stick to those guidelines, any concerns about standards "have little merit," he said.

"Most superintendents and others in the field are telling us that if we can get them qualified people, they'll make the decision as to whether they can handle the classroom or get them the resources and training to make sure they're ready for the classroom."

Fairfax Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech said retired military, business and other professionals could provide an excellent source of new teachers, provided they receive adequate training.

"Teaching isn't simply a matter of knowing your subject matter . . . . I would hope that as we consider allowing people to follow these alternative paths that part of the requirement will include preparation in teaching techniques and methodology," Domenech said.

Earlier this month, educators from around the state joined state officials in hearing a presentation on alternative licensing programs in Texas and New Jersey.

Officials from those states say that 15 percent to 25 percent of their new teachers come from outside traditional training programs. In those states, individuals from non-teaching backgrounds can earn a teaching certificate after about a year in the classroom.

In New Jersey's program, alternatively licensed teachers receive intense mentoring and take 200 hours of training in their first year. The programs have been particularly useful in bringing more minorities and men into teaching, officials said.

Virginia already offers one alternative program in which people who meet academic qualifications can be given a three-year provisional license if a local school superintendent requests one from the state. Only about 7 percent of the 4,000 new teachers hired each year receive such a license, state officials said.