RALEIGH, N.C. -- Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper launched a campaign Monday to try to beat back education and tax legislation from the Republican-controlled General Assembly that he said if enacted would crush North Carolina's public schools and wobble the state's economic future.
"It's clear that the Republican legislature is aiming to choke the life out of public education," Cooper said in a recorded speech released Monday. He urged voters to "take immediate action and tell them to stop the damage that will set back our schools for a generation."
In his video address, Cooper said he's "declaring this a state of emergency" for public education but pointed out it was not an official order. He called on residents to encourage their legislators to reject a spate of GOP-backed education bills in the final weeks of the chief work period for this year's legislative session. The legislature's agenda for the coming weeks includes passing a state budget for the year starting July 1.
The governor will hold public events across the state in the days ahead to rally parents, educators and business leaders.
"Meaningless publicity stunts do nothing to improve educational outcomes in our state," a spokesman for Sen. Phil Berger said. "The House and Senate will continue working together to put forward budget proposals that address the needs of students and parents."
"The House and Senate are currently hard at work negotiating a budget that will include pay raises for teachers, tax cuts for families, and expands school choice for students. The Governor's political stunts and misinformation are simply counterproductive," a spokesperson for Speaker Tim Moore said.
Cooper went on in his video released Monday to say that public school teacher pay proposals by Republicans fall way short and will fail to address a classroom teacher shortage. And he argues deeper income tax cuts in the competing House and Senate budget proposals that also would benefit the highest wage earners will ultimately empty state coffers.
At the same time, the GOP is moving to dramatically expand the state's K-12 private school scholarship program so that families of any income level could receive financial assistance, not just the poor and middle class.
That expansion ultimately would send over $500 million in taxpayer money annually to the Opportunity Scholarship Program. In contrast, the governor said, the Senate budget would raise base salaries for some veteran teachers by just $250 over two years.
"They've clearly given up on the public schools and have decided to fund private schools instead," Cooper told AP. "This is an intentional slap in the face of teachers."
Republicans point out that public education spending would grow by several hundred million dollars a year annually in their competing plans. And GOP leaders consider expansion of the private-school vouchers program part of a philosophy to give all children access to education options - whatever the source - to help them succeed.
Cooper's use of the gubernatorial bully pulpit comes as his power to confront the legislature have been weakened in the weeks since the party switch of Democratic Rep. Tricia Cotham to the GOP. Her change means Republicans now hold veto-proof seat majorities in both chambers and if united can override any veto.
Cooper said he would have issued the clarion call for education even if he had sizeable legislative support to uphold his veto because education is critical to the state's fiscal health. The public school system is often the largest employer in rural counties and prepares students for the workforce.
"The general public doesn't realize the disaster that is brewing," Cooper said.
The House proposal would raise average teacher pay by 10.2% over two years, compared to 4.5% in the Senate plan, which would lag behind recent inflation rates. Cooper's budget proposal wanted 18% average raises.
The governor also accused legislators of doing little to expand the state's prekindergarten program for at-risk children and to stabilize child care centers.
And he's also worried about a proposed constitutional amendment that if placed on the ballot would remove his ability to appoint nearly all members of the State Board of Education. Members would be picked in district elections instead.