Teachers across the country face pay freezes and possible layoffs, but the heads of the two biggest teachers unions saw their pay jump 20 percent last year, to nearly half a million dollars apiece.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten's pay jumped to $407,323 between 2010 and 2011, while her counterpart at the National Education Association, Dennis Van Roekel, got a raise to $362,644. Factor in stipends and other paid expenses and Weingarten took in $493,859 and Van Roekel $460,060 for 2011.
The big salaries drew jeers from many educators and their advocates in the U.S., where the average nationwide salary for teachers is a scant $44,000 a year. By contrast, nearly 600 staffers at the NEA and AFT are raking in six-figure salaries, according to Association of American Educators Executive Director Gary Beckner.
“In terms of salaries, union executives rake in nearly 10 times the average household income and far more than any teacher," Beckner told FoxNews.com. “Are teachers or anyone in the private sector experiencing those increases in times of financial hardship?"
The union bigwigs are well-insulated from the paycheck-to-paycheck lives of most schoolteachers, said Tracie Happel, a elementary school teacher in Lacrosse, Wisc., who has spoken out in the past against the practices of the unions.
“It’s always about the union. It’s never about the teachers or students,” Happel said. “When you’re a teacher, you know you will not always be able to have the money for renovations on a house or go away on vacation, but it’s a tough pill to swallow when you can’t do those things when the people who are supposed to represent us get paid more and more every year.”
Happel added that while she is safe for now, many of her colleagues in worse situations.
“They are finding it hard to pay their bills. They are having trouble with basic monthly bills.”
Officials for the NEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Last year, I and the other two AFT officers, as well as all management took a voluntary pay freeze," Weingarten, president of AFT said in a statement.
"We did so because no one knows better than we do the economic distress our members are experiencing. Unlike in the corporate sector, all of my salary, benefits and expenses are fully disclosed," Weingarten said.
But John Ellsworth, a teacher in the Michigan's Grand Ledge Public Schools, told the Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based think tank, that teachers deserve the best advocates union dues can buy.
"Public education is vital for the preservation and growth of our nation and its economy," Ellsworth said in an email. "Leaders of the national teachers' union try to rally people behind this truth. I wish we had people serving in government who recognized the importance of public education, but instead children and teachers need their own advocates since politicians abandon public education so readily."
Tony Amorose, a history teacher with the Dearborn School District in Michigan, said no one begrudges union officials fair salaries. But he said the steep increases are out of step with what the rank and file see. After 21 years of teaching, he earns $74,000 a year. He said he gets by just fine, but worries about the pay younger and less experienced teachers get.
“It would be nice if the unions held the line a bit in a show of solidarity,” said Amorose, who is campaigning for state office. “I don’t mind paying dues, but I don’t see them going down with my compensation. They keep going up. I find it a bit frustrating that they would give themselves such significant salary and compensation increases.”
Michael Van Beek, Mackinac's director of education policy said the problem isn't necessarily high pay for union leaders, it's the way they get it.
“These compensation levels are not based on market demand," Van Beek said. "This pay largely relies upon monopolistic collective bargaining privileges these unions enjoy, which forces school employees to financially support them. This is why transparency of these unions is so important.”
The significant raises of the two union leaders salaries came at a time when the saw memberships dwindling.
“They [the unions] want us to be seen as laborers and not professionals,” said Kristi LaCroix, an English teacher from Kenosha, Wisc., who added that the unions did not want to use Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial reform plan because it gave teachers the choice to be represented by a union which would give them the ability to avoid paying mandatory dues.
“They want us to be seen as laborers and not professionals. I get nothing for my dues except them going to keeping ineffective teachers employed and treated like a servant.”