This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.
Gov. Roy Cooper released his proposed $32.9 billion state budget that includes hefty raises for teachers that he said would raise average teacher salaries to No.1 in the Southeast.
Teachers and principals would see average salary increases of 18% over two years under the plan Cooper presented Wednesday. His budget also restores master’s pay for teachers and includes retention bonuses.
“We have a lot of disagreements about what we need to do for education, but the thing we all seem to agree on that public education will improve significantly in North Carolina if we have a good teacher in every classroom and the good principal in every school, and that’s what this budget aims at,” he said.
As Cooper previewed in his State of the State address last week, his budget pays for the school funding plan recommended by an education consultant as part of the long-running Leandro lawsuit.
State employees would receive 5% raises in the first year of the two-year budget, and 3% in the second year. The budget proposal also includes retention bonuses for state employees that would be paid in two installments.
The legislature writes and approves the state budget, so governors’ budget proposals are no more than suggestions. Governors must negotiate with legislators to have their priorities included. Cooper, a Democrat, enters the budget season with less leverage than he had in the last four years because Republicans gained seats in both the legislative chambers in November.
Cooper and Republican legislative leaders disagree on full funding to address the Leandro lawsuit. Republicans are fighting in court so the state won’t have to pay.
Cooper’s budget received a chilly reception from House Speaker Tim Moore, who called it “a reckless approach to spending” in a press release.
North Carolina is a growing state with low unemployment. Last month, state economists reported that North Carolina has a $3.25 billion budget surplus and more money in its emergency fund than state law requires.
But schools have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers, the vacancy rate for state jobs tops 20%, and, according to the Federal Reserve, the state’s labor force participation rate remains lower than it was in February 2020, before the pandemic hit.
The NC Chamber has said that lack of childcare is keeping some parents out of the labor force. And childcare providers have a hard time finding employees.
Cooper’s budget includes $500 million for childcare stabilization grants, money that goes to childcare providers. Federal money funded that grant program through the pandemic, but that’s going to run out this year.
A bipartisan group of legislators filed bills last week that would budget $300 million for a stabilization grant that helps pay salaries.
Cooper proposed increased spending of $1.5 billion on mental health. His office previously detailed $1 billion of that spending that would, in part, increase reimbursement rates for behavioral health services offered through Medicaid and expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The budget released Wednesday includes $500 million for school social workers, psychologists, nurses and counselors.
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