Angered by increases in tuition and cuts in state financing, thousands of students, parents and faculty members protested across California on Thursday at colleges, universities and even elementary schools to plead for help with the state’s education crisis.
Called a “strike and day of action to defend public education” by organizers, the demonstrations were boisterous and occasionally confrontational — campus and building entrances were blocked at several schools — but they were largely peaceful for most of the day.
Late Thursday afternoon, however, more than 150 people were arrested after they stopped traffic along an interstate in Oakland, according to the California Highway Patrol. There was also one injury. Protesters in Davis, outside Sacramento, also tried to block an interstate but were rebuffed by the authorities using pepper spray. One student protester was arrested.
Scattered tuition protests occurred in other states, too, with at least 16 people arrested at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, when protesters tried to force their way into administration offices and threw ice chunks at campus officers, according to a university spokesman.
One of the largest demonstrations in California took place here on the north steps of the Capitol, where more than 1,000 people used drums, bullhorns, and scores of young voices to try to get their message across.
“How are we going to save the future if we can’t even get into our classes?” said Reid E. Milburn, the president of the Student Senate for California Community Colleges, referring to tuition increases and reductions in the number of courses. Her comments drew a large cheer from those in the crowd, many them students avoiding classes in a show of protest.
California’s public education system has been racked by spending cuts because of the state’s financial problems, which include a looming $20 billion budget deficit. Layoffs and furloughs have hit many districts and school systems, along with reductions in course offerings and grants.
On Wednesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican in his last year of office, said the layoffs and reductions in courses carried out by some schools in the state were “terrible.” The bottom line, he said, was that “they need much more money.”
Where that money might come from is unclear. Alberto Torrico, the Democratic majority leader in the State Assembly, has proposed a 12.5 percent tax on the state’s oil producers, which he says could raise $2 billion for higher education. But with any new tax in California requiring a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, its prospects are uncertain.
Educators said the 23-campus California State University system — which has more than 425,000 students and lower fees than the 10-campus University of California system — was being hit particularly hard by cutbacks.
Julie Chisholm, an assistant professor of writing at one Cal State institution, the California Maritime Academy, in Vallejo, was struggling with 1-year-old twins at the Sacramento protest. She said that her $60,000 salary had been cut 10 percent by furloughs, but that she had chosen to take her furloughs on nonteaching days to avoid inconveniencing her students.
“Our students are getting hit, too, with higher tuition,” she said.
In Santa Cruz, the surfing town south of San Francisco, protesters effectively shut down access to the University of California campus there by blocking entrances, according to a message posted on the university’s Web site. Protesters also broke at least one windshield and intimidated visitors, the message said.
Santa Cruz and several other University of California campuses were the sites of demonstrations last fall when the State Board of Regents approved a 32 percent increase in undergraduate fees, the equivalent of tuition.
Several hundred students also protested at Bruin Plaza at the University of California, Los Angeles, where people in one group had painted skulls on their faces. And at the university’s Berkeley campus, Rafael Velazquez, 23, a graduate student in the school of education, who plans to be a public high school teacher, was one of hundreds protesting.
“I plan to be a teacher, but it’s not my job prospects I’m worried about,” said Mr. Velazquez, who has a brother in fifth grade in San Lorenzo. “It’s the whole system.”
The cuts are also being felt in economically depressed areas like Richmond, near San Francisco, where unemployment is 17.6 percent and violent crime and poverty are common.
“Kids come to school hungry; some are homeless,” said Mary Flanagan, 55, a third-grade teacher from Richmond. “How can we deal with problems like that with as many as 38, 40 kids in a class?”
Protesters said they would continue to press their case with more demonstrations, including what was expected to be a well-attended protest on Thursday evening in central San Francisco. But at San Francisco State, where about 150 students, faculty members and administrators had joined to form an “informational picket line,” some were skeptical that anything — other than a sudden influx of money — would be effective in swaying state leaders.
“We’ve had tons of protests here, and it doesn’t do much,” said Maura Geiszler, 22, a senior studying music. “All they’ve got to do is turn off the news.”
Reporting was contributed by Malia Wollan from Berkeley, Calif.; Jennifer Steinhauer and Rebecca Cathcart from Los Angeles; and Gerry Shih from San Francisco.
By JESSE McKINLEY-NYT (SACRAMENTO —March 4, 2010)