A public-policy think tank says the leadership of the National Education Association, the country’s top teachers’ union, is so far removed from ordinary classroom environments they can no longer relate to the tasks facing working-class teachers.

“The new leaders of the National Education Association tout themselves as classroom teachers on leave to represent their colleagues,” said Carl Gibson, a spokesman for the Olympia, Washington-based Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

But, Gibson continued, “we did a little digging around to see what kind of classroom experience they have. Turns out none of them have worked in a classroom during the last decade. For some, it’s been far longer.”

Gibson said EFF looked at Bob Chase, the 2.7-million member NEA’s outgoing president; Reg Weaver, its incoming president; Dennis Van Roekel, the union’s new vice president; and Lily Eskelsen, NEA’s new secretary-general. The union’s top officials are not the seasoned teaching pros they often claim to be. Plus, the group said, the NEA elite do much better financially than teachers still in the classroom – even veteran teachers.

According to a July 3 press release, the NEA said Weaver is “a 35-year teaching veteran and middle-school science teacher from suburban Chicago.” In published statements, Weaver said he was an “advocate” for public-education reform.

But EFF countered that Weaver has instead been a union official for three decades while a teacher “for less than 10 years.”

The think tank said Weaver first began teaching in Harvey School District 152, which is just south of Chicago, in 1961, but district personnel say Weaver has been on leave for a decade. He served as president of the Harvey Education Association in Illinois from 1967-71, then became vice president of the Illinois Education Association from 1977-81.

He left that position to become president of IEA until 1987. Two years later, Weaver became a member of the NEA’s executive committee and served in that post until 1995. The following year he was selected as VP of the NEA; in 2002 he ascended to NEA’s presidency.

Former NEA head Bob Chase ran the union from 1996-2002. Before then he spent seven years – from 1989 until 1996 – as its vice president. Prior to his national posts, Chase served as president and vice president of the Connecticut Education Association from 1979-1989, having served the CEA in a junior capacity for an undetermined amount of time before 1979.

Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA’s vice president, is a “supposed 25-year teaching veteran,” EFF said, but research shows he’s had “approximately 17 years in the union and approximately five to seven years as an actual teacher.”

Van Roekel’s resume includes secretary-treasurer of the NEA from 1997 until his election as its VP, preceded by two terms on the NEA’s executive committee, a term as president of the Arizona Education Association, two terms on the Paradise Valley Education Association and a stint as treasurer of the PVEA, all from 1977-1996.

Can NEA executive committee members and leaders remain full-time educators? No, according to union officials, because there is too much time involved in running the organization.

In terms of compensation, however, that isn’t a problem for the union’s top officials. According to the Education Intelligence Agency, a for-profit public-education research firm, Weaver’s salary this year will top $231,000, but go up next year to $237,967.

Yet, the NEA’s own data says the median salary for in-the-trenches teachers is $38,316 a year. New Jersey teachers have the highest average salaries at $52,381 a year; South Dakota teachers make the least at $30,265 annually.

And, in an April 8 press release, NEA officials were complaining – hypocritically, some claim – that nationally, teachers’ salaries remain too low.

“As more money was invested in public education, teacher salaries remained stagnant – all while the U.S. was in a time of economic expansion,” Chase said in a July statement. “If we, as a nation, are serious about student achievement, we need to make sure we can attract and retain high-quality teachers.”

Besides generating well-above-average salaries, NEA executives will also reap a combined $570,817 in cash allowances, benefits and travel expenses over and above their paychecks this year. Next year, EFF said, that figure climbs to $582,075.

“Each of the three executive officers gets an additional 20 percent of salary as a cash ‘living allowance,’ plus another 20 percent of salary for benefits, since they are not on the employees’ benefits plan,” said Mike Antonucci, head of the Education Intelligence Agency. “So that additional 40 percent for each of them comes out of that half-million.

“Whatever is left over is for travel expenses, and that goes into a common pot for the three of them,” he added. “Naturally, the president will tend to travel more than the other two.”

Michael Pons, a spokesman for NEA, dismissed the EFF report.

“I don’t know where [it’s] going or what the general public interest is in this,” he told WND.

But, he said the salaries of the NEA’s top officials was not commensurate with the kind of salaries earned by the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who have far fewer employees. Also, he questioned the manner in which Antonucci calculated NEA compensation.

“[Antonucci] converts to ‘salary’ [NEA executives’] salary, their benefits and their travel,” he said. “Is that how you talk about your job? Most people don’t.”

“Even if [their salaries] were in the amounts he talks about, it’s relatively low for people who hold that kind of position in an organization of this size,” Pons said. “It’s like a tenth of what a CEO would make in a comparably sized organization.”

He also said it was “interesting” that “nobody knows what [Antonucci] and others make, yet they’re all for full disclosure.”

In terms of reform, Pons said NEA was focused mostly on finding “qualified teachers” for all schools, including inner-city urban schools, where that need is the greatest.

The EFF report comes amid growing turmoil over public education. While most kids in the U.S. attend public schools, parents and educators are becoming increasingly skeptical of them. Years of falling test scores, increased violence and drug problems, and higher dropout rates in the public schools have driven some parents to send their children to private or parochial schools, or to sacrifice even more by teaching them at home.

The Supreme Court recently gave advocates of alternatives to government schools a critical legal victory. In July, the panel ruled that Ohio’s school voucher program, which allocates some public funds for private-school education, is constitutional.

However, though Weaver and other NEA officials say they support education “reforms,” school vouchers are not one of them.

“Vouchers are a divisive and expensive diversion from continuing progress” in public-school education, said an NEA statement following the Supreme Court decision. “Make no mistake – vouchers are not reform. If policymakers want to act on the issues that parents care most about – the kitchen table discussions about education opportunity for their children – they will address teacher quality, class size, making sure all schools have high expectations for every child and providing the resources to help students succeed.”

Also, the union historically has opposed other so-called “school choice” initiatives that include any alternatives to government-run public schools.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, tuition tax credits, education savings accounts, and vouchers – coupled with dramatic changes in curricula – provide the best “choices” for parents seeking to improve their children’s education opportunities.

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