Gov. Cooper pitches state budget proposal heavy on education spending

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Gov. Roy Cooper held a media briefing Wednesday afternoon to pitch his recommended state budget.

Cooper outlined his state budget plan that includes a 10% raise for teachers and principals over two years -- 5.7% in the first year and 4.3% in the second. The plan also provides a $2,000 bonus for educators in May of this year.

Educators would also get a $1,000 bonus in each of the next two Octobers.

"With the right priorities, we will not only beat this pandemic but build lasting success for North Carolina," Cooper said. "The most important recommendations today will invest in North Carolina's people so they can learn, get healthier, and get the right kind of training for great jobs."

The Governor's budget would invest $27.4 billion in 2021-2022 and $28.5 billion in 2022-2023 in areas including education, economic development, and health care.

The governor said his budget provides for a $15 per hour minimum wage for non-certified school workers, such as bus drivers and other support staffers.

The governor also wants voters to approve a $4.7 billion bond that would pay for schools, construction, community college, health and safety projects including relocation of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We have concerns about the very high spending growth and billions in borrowing in Gov. Cooper's proposed budget," Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Sampson, one of the Senate's budget writers, said. "We don't want to return to an era of rollercoaster-style budgets with huge spikes in the boom years followed by huge cuts in the lean years."

The bond would bolster state parks and museums, Cooper said.

Another $500,000 in the biennial budget, which covers 2021-22 and 2022-23, is allotted to cultural and visitor attractions.

The budget, heavy on education needs, also invests in efforts to improve recruitment, preparation, support, and retention of diverse educators. Additionally, the plan provides $80 million to help school districts hire more nurses, counselors, psychologists, and social workers to support student physical and mental health.

"This budget also works to make good on our state's Constitutional duty to make sure every child has access to a sound basic education," Cooper said. "We know how to do that: Attract and keep good teachers with competitive pay and recruit young people to make teaching a career. Make sure students and adults are ready for careers in high-demand fields of employment. Provide the right resources for students with the greatest needs."

Jackson, however, was critical of some aspects of Cooper's proposed education funding.

"Gov. Cooper also wants to eliminate the Opportunity Scholarship program," Jackson said. "His plan would harm working parents who desperately want their children to have an education that best prepares them for success. The program is enormously popular, especially among lower-income and non-white communities. For all the left's talk about 'equity,' taking money away from low-income children so a private education is only available to the elite seems hypocritical."

The North Carolina Democratic Party said Cooper's budget will build a stronger, more resilient state.

"Governor Cooper's budget is a clear statement of values as North Carolina emerges from the pandemic, prioritizing people who have been hit hardest over the past year," Party Chair Bobbie Richardson said. "People across our state have experienced tremendous loss over the course of the pandemic, and this budget invests in them. From significant investments in early childhood education, public schools, and deserved raises for teachers, tax credits for those with lower incomes and families, and finally expanding Medicaid for more than 500,000 people who don't have health insurance, this budget is transformative for North Carolinians and will ensure recovery reaches every corner of the state."

But a parent-education advocacy group that supports school choice also blasted the exclusion of the Opportunity Scholarship program.

"Once again, Gov. Roy Cooper has proposed a state budget that fails to meet the growing demand and need from families seeking equal access to the school of their choice," said Mike Long, President of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina. "This should be a time to work to reduce disparities in educational access because a year of a global pandemic has greater illustrated the need to embrace educational choice. Instead of giving parents and families that opportunity to find the best educational option for their children, Governor Cooper is doubling down on cutting funding for scholarships that provide families those needed resources."

The North Carolina Association of Educators, predictably, issued support for Cooper's budget.

"We appreciate the governor's ongoing support for public education in North Carolina and thoughtful approach to his budget for this biennium," NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly said. "We share many of the governor's funding priorities, specifically his support of raising ESP pay to $15 an hour statewide, the restoration of master's degree pay in order to retain the best and brightest educators, and increased funding to support the social and emotional needs of our students by ensuring counselors and nurses are present in every school."

Walker Kelly added that Cooper's proposals for salary increases are affordable, strategic, and well-deserved." She said she hopes the General Assembly will "show the same appreciation."

Cooper was joined by State Budget Director Charlie Perusse at the news conference.

Perusse said the state started from "firm financial footing" thanks to unprecedented federal relief during the COVID-19 pandemic from both the Trump and Biden administrations.