The state’s top legislative leaders say they’re eager to talk to teachers gathering in Raleigh on Wednesday, May 16, about a 6.2 percent average pay raise they’ll receive next year.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, and House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, held a news conference on the eve of the teacher protest touting healthy increases in education spending under Republicans, and a fifth consecutive pay raise pledged to teachers as part of a $23.9 billion 2018-19 budget.

Berger said the teacher walkouts from 40 school districts with 1 million students is political gamesmanship that has increased since Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper took office.

“Much of what we’re hearing is politically motivated” rhetoric and misinformation from the N.C. Association of Educators, Berger said. He said the NCAE is closely aligned with the Democratic Party, and shares its partisan positions.

In a May 14 email to undisclosed recipients, the NCAE said it was “inspired by the powerful organizing and social justice focus of the Chicago Teachers’ Union and have been working to bring similar energy to North Carolina.” It said the gathering on the opening day of the legislative session “isn’t union-like activity. It’s union activity.”

Berger and Moore both said they’ve carved time out of their schedule Wednesday to meet with teachers from their legislative districts to discuss GOP education policies. Other lawmakers are doing the same.

“Instead of prioritizing tax cuts for corporations and those earning more than $200,000, legislators should give real raises to all teachers,” Cooper spokeswoman Noelle Talley said in response to Republicans’ $23.9 billion spending plan. “Making education the top priority means more textbooks and classrooms, not more tax cuts for those already at the top.”

Cooper’s budget puts North Carolina on track to reach the national average in teacher pay in four years, and to be a Top Ten Educated State by 2025, Talley said. It adds 2,000 pre-K slots, $25 million for textbooks and digital learning, and providing educators a $150 stipend to cover out-of-pocket classroom supplies.

The National Education Association ranked North Carolina No. 2 nationally for fastest rising teacher pay in 2018, and No. 1 in 2017. Berger said lawmakers are interested in improving base pay, but also shifting more toward merit pay measures based on performance.

The average 6.2 percent teacher pay raise in the coming year hikes the average salary to $53,600 annually. That doesn’t include local supplements, which push pay higher.

“That’s more than a lot of people out there in the private sector are getting,” Moore said.

Berger said the $53,600 average salary is $8,600 more than in 2013-14. It’s a 19 percent raise. More than half of all teachers — 44,000 — will receive at least $10,000 more since 2014. Teachers with 25 years or more of experience will be paid $9,040 more than they received in 2014.

Republicans have revised the pay schedule so it takes just 15 years to reach the top of the scale, compared to 32 years in 2011. Annual education spending is on track to be $2 billion more than in 2010-11, when Democrats still controlled the legislature.

Berger and Moore said there was no interest in Cooper’s $24.5 billion budget with an 8 percent teacher pay raise. That money would come from freezing the corporate income tax rate at 3 percent instead of the scheduled drop to 2.5 percent, and eliminating a scheduled reduction in the personal income tax rate from 5.499 to 5.25 for those making more than $200,000.

“We have no intention of raising taxes on the hardworking people of North Carolina,” Berger said. When Democrats say they plan to raise taxes only on the rich, “hold onto your wallet because everybody ends up getting hit.”

Cooper’s budget is a “push to return to the same failed approach that required the furloughing of teachers,” thousands of cuts to supplemental staff, pay freezes, and “leaving a massive hole that we’ve been working for years to backfill,” Berger said.

Moore said funding is provided for new textbooks, but the legislature is splitting spending with digital materials to keep pace with a technology-based society and business culture.

Cooper’s  budget includes $130 million to hire more student support personnel in schools, such as school resource officers, nurses, and counselors, and to upgrade facilities to be more secure.

Moore said the GOP budget has additional funding for more school nurses, psychologists, and counselors as part of the school safety initiative.

The lawmakers emphasized that much about the budget remains to be decided, spending and other bills will be introduced in the short session, but they hope to finish their business quickly.