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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Amid criticism from Republicans in the legislature for his budget proposal, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) began a statewide tour of public schools Thursday trying to build support for his plan to increase spending on education.

A key part of his budget that he released the day before calls for teachers and principals to receive 18 percent raises on average over the next two years.

“What we did is set a bar here. This is the optimum. This is where we should go. This is where we can go. This is where we can afford to go,” he said.

Cooper visited classrooms at Scurlock Elementary School in Hoke County. The county has been at the center of a long-running court case over education funding, known as the Leandro case. The governor’s budget calls for fully funding a court-ordered plan that remains at the center of a legal battle over what authority the courts have to tell the legislature how much money to spend on schools.

“Right now, not only in Hoke County but across the state, we’ve got 5,000 teacher vacancies,” Cooper said. “When you have generational opportunities, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities require once-in-a-lifetime investments.”

Principal Demarious McNeill said, as in many school districts, he’s having trouble hiring quality teachers.

“The minute that you go up to them and say, hey this is what you’ll be making, they instantly go elsewhere. True, true picture,” he said.

Cooper’s budget would increase starting pay for teachers from $37,000 to $46,000 over two years. He said his proposal would make North Carolina first in the southeast for teacher pay and move from 32nd in the nation to 16th overall.

Republican legislative leaders quickly dismissed the governor’s budget, raising concerns about his plan to increase overall state spending by 18 percent next year.

“We’ve never seen that level of increased spending. So, that simply is not sustainable. That’s the kind of stuff that’s happening at the federal level that has put the nation in such a bad spot right now,” said House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland).

Speaker Moore also raised concerns about Cooper proposing to give teachers an 18 percent raise over two years but giving state employees an 8 percent raise in that time. Cooper also proposed giving retention bonuses to all of them that would be at least $1,000.

Moore didn’t say what pay raises House Republicans will propose in their budget, which will be released in early April.

“The pay raises for teachers and state employees, while they may not be identical, they’re going to be much closer, not this huge disparity,” he said.

Cooper has also proposed freezing the current income tax rates for corporations and individuals making more than $200,000. Under the budget Republicans crafted and Cooper signed into law in 2021, income tax rates for businesses and people would decline over the next several years.

For people making less than $200,000, the personal income tax rate would continue to decline from the current rate of 4.75 percent to 3.99 percent in 2027 under Cooper’s plan announced this week.

He said, “The question is: are you going to give it away in tax breaks to corporations and the very wealthiest among us, or are we going to invest in education?”

Republicans say they’re discussing plans to lower the income tax rate further and have the scheduled rate reductions go into effect more quickly.