4 Min Read
* Students rally on campuses across California
* Protests largely peaceful but some arrests in Oakland (Adds Oakland arrests, San Francisco rally)
By Peter Henderson
SAN FRANCISCO, March 4 (Reuters) - Students and faculty at California's public universities rallied across the state on Thursday to protest steep fee hikes they say have damaged a system of higher education long the envy of the nation.
More than 100 such events in more than 30 states were scheduled for a "Day of Action" in support of public education, prompted by tuition hikes and program cuts that reflect financial problems affecting nearly every U.S. state.
Weakening of the education system is considered especially severe in California, one of the states hardest hit by the recession.
Protests were largely peaceful, although Oakland police arrested about 150 people after protesters climbed onto a San Francisco Bay area freeway during the afternoon commute, shutting it down for about an hour, police said.
The first sign of protest came midday at the University of California at Berkeley, the 1960s hub of Vietnam War protests, with yoga students holding class outside to avoid crossing picket lines.
Later, several hundred students, faculty and staff rallied at Berkeley and marched to downtown Oakland. Local media said a San Francisco City Hall rally drew thousands.
A University of California Santa Cruz radio broadcast advised the public to avoid that campus after protesters blocked a traffic entrance.
The protests also reflected a growing debate about whether Californians should temper their aspirations or be willing to pay more to maintain universities and other hallmark institutions like state parks and social services.
"They are not prioritizing education. That should be at the top of the list -- on top of everything," said Yesenia Castellanos, 18, a Berkeley freshman heading for a march with a sign reading, "Do UC what I see? Injustice."
Newly approved fee hikes of more than 30 percent will lift education costs at University of California campuses to more than $10,000 per year, making the UC system more expensive than rival public universities in many other states, students said.
Escalating fees also make it more difficult for less-affluent, minority students to attend, adding to the effects of a 1996 state ballot initiative that banned affirmative action at state institutions. Some students see the trend as a form of privatization that also reduces diversity.
California faces a $20 billion budget shortfall after closing an even bigger gap last year.
The current budget provided the UC system 20 percent less than the year before. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal for next year would only partially reverse that cut, leading to fee hikes and fewer classes.
The state also is facing the possibility of record layoffs in public schools, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The California Teachers Association said more than 18,000 teachers have been notified that their jobs could be eliminated next school year.
Financial pressure is mounting in other states, as well. The public university system in Illinois, a state facing an $11 billion deficit, has seen its tuition triple over the past decade, with another 20 percent hike possible.
Students, parents and teachers rallied on the steps of New York City Hall to protest the impending closure of 19 failing city schools and the expansion of charter schools.
Under the state budget proposed by New York Governor David Paterson, state and city universities and colleges would lose $208 million in funds, and tuition aid would be cut, to help close a state deficit of several billion dollars.
Additional reporting by Andrew Stern in Chicago, Jim Christie in San Francisco and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Philip Barbara and Will Dunham