SAN FRANCISCO - 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 over 30 states were scheduled for a "Day of Action" in support of public education across the country, prompted by tuition hikes and program cuts that reflect financial problems affecting nearly every U.S. state.
Weakening of the education system is considered particularly severe in California, one of the states hardest-hit by the recession.
Several hundred students, faculty and staff rallied at the University of California at Berkeley, the 1960s hub of Vietnam war protests. Yoga students there held classes outside to avoid crossing picket lines.
A UC Santa Cruz radio broadcast advised the public to avoid that campus after protesters blocked a traffic entrance.
Thousands were expected to rally at public schools and at state university and community college campuses up and down the state.
Students are not alone in their dissatisfaction with cutbacks. Polls show that voters see the quality of life in California in decline with a gaping budget shortfall, legislative gridlock, slashed social services and double-digit unemployment.
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 over $10,000 per year, making the UC system more expensive than rival public schools 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. Students see the trend as a form of privatization that also reduces diversity.
"When you disinvest from public institutions, it is by definition privatization," grad student Shad Small, 23, said.
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, and 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, spurring Thursday's joint action between educators and students at all levels. 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.
"You could end up with an institution where the kids come from wealthy families," University of Illinois professor James Barrett said at a march by several hundred protesters.
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)