The Virginia Board of Education has given preliminary approval to a plan that would make it easier for experienced military personnel to become teachers.

Under the Career Switcher program, military personnel making the transition into teaching would be granted temporary teaching certificates after participating in an intensive three- to five-week summer training program.

During the school year, the new teacher would be assigned a mentor and would be required to attend weekly seminars and pass the regular teacher entrance exams. At the end of the school year, the local school district would assess the teacher's competence and recommend whether he or she should be issued a regular license.

The state board will hold a series of public hearings on the proposal around the state before taking a final vote on the program sometime next year. State officials anticipate holding the public hearings in February and hope to have a pilot program in place by late summer.

The alternative licensing program was developed in response to the looming teacher shortage. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that the nation's schools will need 200,000 new teachers a year for the next 10 years to keep pace with enrollment growth and teacher retirements.

Virginia is also feeling the crunch, and state officials decided they wanted to make it easier for professionals from fields outside education to become teachers.

The board was already looking at the licensing program for military personnel when the 1999 General Assembly directed the state Department of Education to come up with an alternative licensing program for individuals from other fields.

Board President Kirk Schroder said he expects the state to expand the Career Switcher program to other fields within a year.

Schroder said state officials believe the alternative programs could be particularly valuable in recruiting teachers in subject areas where there are serious shortages, including math, science, foreign language and special education. They also want to increase the numbers of male elementary teachers and minority teachers at all levels.

Schroder believes the programs will be especially attractive to mid-career professionals with backgrounds in math and science.

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

"They're saying 'let's make it easier' and 'let's increase standards.' Which way do you want it?" asked Rick Baumgartner, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association. Baumgartner said it is incorrect to assume that skills obtained in a military career readily translate into good teaching skills.

He said he also is concerned that the Career Switcher program doesn't provide enough training for new teachers and that it lacks a strong student-teaching component. The new teachers will get a small amount of field experience with summer school students during the summer training session.

"Teaching is hard work. There are an awful lot of challenges in classrooms," he said. "You need to spend time watching someone with experience. This is just not going to do them justice--it's not fair to them and it's not fair to students."

Schroder disputed the notion that the state would be lowering standards, noting that the new teachers would be required to pass the same exams as teachers who enter the profession through traditional means. He also noted that local school divisions will still have the authority to determine whether any of these individuals should be hired. The new licenses do not guarantee employment.

"You can't complain about a teacher shortage and balk at ways to get qualified teachers into the classroom," said Schroder. "There are a lot of individuals out there with expertise in areas where we have a critical need--who would like to go into teaching as a second profession--but there is a lot of red tape involved in that transition. We're trying to clear away some of that red tape."

Nationwide, 41 states currently have alternative licensing programs, including Texas and New Jersey. Officials in those states estimate that 15 percent to 25 percent of their new teachers are from nontraditional training programs. Both states made presentations about their programs to Virginia officials.

Under Virginia's model, the summer preparation training would include introductions to classroom management, teaching strategies and the state Standards of Learning. Upon completion of the preparation course, the candidates would be issued a special one-year "eligibility license."

During the year, the teachers would be expected to take and pass the Praxis I and Praxis II exams. Training would continue with weekly seminars and meetings with a trained mentor. At the end of the school year, the teacher's employer would recommend whether the candidate should be issued a renewable license.