While Moral Monday protests are growing at the General Assembly, a small band of progressive leaders is moving around the state on another important mission. Public Schools First NC is a grassroots organization sounding the alarm about Republican policies that threaten to destroy public education.

From Asheville to Wilmington, Public Schools First volunteers are literally clanging a school bell in order to be heard in the media. Former Congressman Bob Etheridge, chief spokesman for the tour, is one of them. “The politicians who are now controlling government in the state capital are betraying North Carolina’s [educational] legacy,” Etheridge says, adding the number of “bad ideas is absolutely scary.”

Etheridge, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction from 1989 to 1996, grabs the bell and shakes it. “It’s time to wake up and go to work” is his message.

I’m thrilled by the fact that each Moral Monday has been bigger than the last. This weekthe fourth weekmore than 500 people came to the Legislative Building to sing, chant and pray over a long list of Republican abuses; 57 were arrested for engaging in “loving civil disobedience,” as the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, calls it.

Along with the protests, though, progressives need a rallying cry around the one issue that historically is the chief battleground of state politicseducation.

Education, including the UNC system and the community colleges, accounts for almost three-fifths of state spending, about $11.7 billion of a total state budget of $20.6 billion. The bulk of education spending, almost $8 billion, is for K–12 schools.

But if you only commit one number to memory, make it this one: North Carolina has dropped to 48th among the 50 states plus the District of Columbia in terms of our per-student support for K–12 public schools. That’s right, according to the National Education Association, we were 45th last year, but we’ve slipped three places and now lead only Arizona, Utah and Texas.

We are behind South Carolina. Let me repeat that for those who think of South Carolina as the worst-case state for everything unless it’s Mississippiwhich we’re behind as well. Our per-student support for K–12 schools has dropped below $8,500 a year, roughly $400 per student less than in South Carolina. It’s $1,000 less than Mississippi.

North Carolina’s teachers have suffered the worst pay cutsalmost 16 percent in inflation-adjusted termsof any state over the past decade. Pay in North Carolina, equal to the national average 10 years ago, is now $10,000 less per teacherputting us 48th on that list, too.

We are in danger of becoming the butt of the country’s bad-schools jokes.

That strikes the Public Schools First members, including many longtime advocates in the Triangle, as not funny at all.

Our public schools are far from perfect, but here’s a point Public Schools First makes that is perfectly sensible: North Carolina’s high school graduation rate hit an all-time high last year, with 80 percent of students earning diplomas. We set that record 12 years after the state began to invest in day care, early childhood education through the Smart Start and More at Four pre-K education programs, and smaller class sizes in grades K–3.

Invest in early childhood education, get high school graduates 12 years later: “There is a cause and effect,” Etheridge says.

So what are the Republicans doing? They’re fixing to cut pre-K funding for poor kids, slash school aid and increase class sizes.

Meanwhile, they’re letting for-profit companies run cheap charter schools for the poor while alsoif Republicans such as state Rep. Paul Stam of Apex have their waypaying middle-income kids $4,200 a year to move to private schools.

Without a doubt, the biggest problem our public schools face is the high rate of child poverty in this state and across the nation. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in five children in the U.S. lives in poverty, defined as family income less than 50 percent of the national median. Compared with 33 other developed countries, the U.S. ranked next to last. Only Romania is worse.

Children growing up in poverty, the academy reported, suffer enormous health problems. They also experience “poor academic achievement and lower rates of high school graduation; they have less positive social and emotional development which, in turn, often leads to life ‘trajectory altering events’ such as early unprotected sex with increased teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, and increased criminal behavior as adolescents and adults; and they are more likely to be poor adults with low productivity and low earnings.”

Sex? Drugs? I thought Republicans were about cutting crime rates and increasing productivity. Not for poor kids, apparently.

Not if it gets in the way of their $500 million tax cut for the wealthy and corporationswhich they hope to turn into a $1 billion tax cut in future years.

About 60,000 North Carolina children should qualify for free, public pre–K programs given their families’ low incomes. But state funding covers just 30,000 slots, and the proposed budget rolled out Sunday by the Senate Republicans cuts that number by 2,500 this year and 5,000 next year.

The Senate’s budget also eliminates all teacher assistant positions in the second and third grades, which means only kindergarten and first-grade teachers would still be allowed an assistantif the local school board wanted to pay for it. And the Senate budget eliminates caps on class sizes in grades K–3.

Overall, the budget cuts $400 million from what’s needed to maintain current funding plus enrollment growth.

It’s the opposite of what’s needed to improve our schools. But the Republicans’ objective seems to be the opposite: to run the schools down so they can say with a straight face, as they so often do, “Our schools are failing, we must try something else.”

This article appeared in print with the headline “We’re worse than Mississippi.”