Thousands protest California education cuts

A day of passionate protest against education funding cuts attracted thousands of demonstrators Thursday to mostly peaceful rallies, walkouts and teach-ins at universities and high schools throughout California and the nation. In Oakland, however, about 150 protesters were arrested after they blocked a freeway, snarling rush-hour traffic.

From Los Angeles to New York and from San Diego to Humboldt in Northern California, students, faculty and parents at many schools decried higher student fees, reduced class offerings and teacher layoffs in what leaders described as a “Day of Action for Public Education.” Labor unions and student government groups were the main organizers.

“We are paying more to get less of an education. That’s why I’m out here today to protest against that,” said Cal State Long Beach art education student Jessica Naujoks, who joined an estimated 2,500 others at a campus rally. Among their complaints: the cutting of more than 1,500 class sections this year, a 13% drop.

Demonstrators held up traffic about an hour on Interstate 880 in Oakland, where one protester was seriously injured after jumping off the freeway near downtown, police said. He was expected to survive, said Officer Jeff Thomason of the Oakland Police Department.

With the toll the recession took on state revenue over the last two years, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators have said they had no choice but to cut billions from primary, secondary and higher education to close enormous deficits.

In Southern California, busloads of demonstrators converged from schools across the region Thursday evening at downtown Los Angeles’ Pershing Square. The crowd, estimated at more than 2,000, then marched to the nearby state office building on Spring Street, as commuters faced temporary street closures.

Debby Apraku, who was laid off from the Alhambra Unified School District last year, joined two colleagues from the adult education program at the rally. “They’re cutting the future,” she said. “Not just for us but for all the students.”

In the San Fernando Valley, a handful of protesters, including one faculty member, were arrested Thursday evening after allegedly blocking oncoming traffic near Cal State Northridge.

Earlier in the day, UCLA campus police estimated that about 500 people had gathered at Bruin Plaza. Chanting “Who’s got the power? We’ve got the power,” students and professors walked out of classes for the lunchtime protest. Later, a crowd held a sit-in that lasted about five hours at Murphy Hall, UCLA’s administrative headquarters. After police warned that arrests could be made, the remaining 40 or so protesters dispersed.

UCLA professor Sara Melzer joined her students in a walkout from their French culture and writing course because she said she wants to stop what she described as the privatization of public higher education. “It’s not just about student fee hikes,” she said. “That’s the tip of the iceberg.”

In the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, walkouts were reported at six high schools, involving about 540 students in all, many of whom then returned to class, said Earl Perkins, assistant superintendent for school operations.

At Wilson High in Long Beach, about 2,000 students, parents and teachers crowded gymnasium bleachers for a special meeting after school. Union leaders said that more than 700 employees, mainly teachers, face layoffs next year in the Long Beach Unified School District, crowding more students into the remaining classes.

“Bigger class sizes put pressures on teachers, and that trickles down to the kids. It’s a disturbing situation all the way around,” said Diana Craighead, a former PTA leader who has a daughter at a Long Beach middle school and two sons who graduated from Wilson.

At Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, about 50 students gathered in front of the student union, with some shouting, “Give my education back!” They played a mock “Wheel of Fortune” game with stops that included “graduating in four years with a good education” and “getting a 30% fee increase.”

Chris Morales, 22, a junior majoring in business, said he believes the nationwide protests could be effective.

“I feel like this is a big movement that might make a difference,” he said.

At UC Santa Cruz, about 200 pickets blocked access to the campus, and one smashed the rear windshield of a car that demonstrators said tried to run them down; no arrests were made.

Provost David Kliger said that breaking the windshield was “reprehensible” and that violence “does nothing to aid efforts to restore funding to the university.”

At UC Berkeley, about 150 people blocked Sather Gate, the main pedestrian entrance to campus, for a while, although they allowed disabled students through. Later, a crowd of about 1,000 marched through city streets to the UC system headquarters in Oakland, about six miles away. A group climbed onto the freeway, leading to the evening arrests.

Elsewhere in the country, at least 15 protesters were arrested by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee police after rushing into an administrative building, a university spokesman reported. In Olympia, Wash., about 75 protesters were ejected from the state Senate gallery for interrupting a debate with a protest song to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

Many California students, however, sought a normal day of schooling.

Juan Venegas, 28, a UCLA political science major who grew up in South L.A., said half of his afternoon geography class was absent. Even though he agrees with the protest cause, he thought it would be detrimental to miss class as the quarter winds down and finals loom.

“It’s not that I don’t sympathize with them, because I do,” he said.

Times staff writer Robert J. Lopez and the Associated Press contributed to this report.