* 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 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
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
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."
PUBLIC EDUCATION SEEN GOING PRIVATE
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
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)