Students staged raucous rallies on nationwide college campuses Thursday in protests against deep education cuts that turned violent as demonstrators threw punches and ice chunks in Wisconsin and blocked university gates and smashed car windows in California.
At least 15 protesters were arrested by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee police after as many as 150 students gathered at the student union then moved to an administrative building to deliver petitions to the school chancellor.
A woman who was allowed to go inside encouraged protesters to rush the building after she emerged, university spokesman Tom Luljak said.
No serious injuries were reported in the melee that followed.
"We have no problem with a protest," Luljak said. "We do have a serious problem when individuals decide to become violent."
Kas Schwerdtfeger, a national organizer for Milwaukee Students for a Democratic Society, said demonstrators were peaceful but persistent in approaching the hall.
"What we did was try to assert ourselves peacefully and nonviolently," Schwerdtfeger said. "Police started pushing, shoving, using mace on somewhere around 20 to 25 people."
The school was among dozens of nationwide campuses hit with marches, strikes, teach-ins and walkouts in what was billed as the March 4th National Day of Action for Public Education.
Organizers said hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and parents were expected to participate in the nationwide demonstrations.
The steep economic downturn has forced states to slash funding to K-12 schools, community colleges and universities to cope with plummeting tax revenue.
Experts said schools and colleges could face more severe financial trouble over the next few years as they drain federal stimulus money that temporarily prevented widespread layoffs and classroom cuts.
Some university officials said they supported the protests as long as they remained peaceful.
"My heart and my support are with everybody and anybody who wants to stand up for public education," University of California President Mark Yudof said in a statement. "Public education drives a society's ability to progress and to prosper."
In Wisconsin, more than 25,000 students have been put on a waiting list after the state's premier financial aid program ran out of money because of increased demand.
At the University of Illinois, about 200 professors, instructors and graduate faculty marched through campus carrying signs that read "Furlough Legislators" — a reference to recent furloughs and 4 percent pay cuts imposed on thousands of university employees.
The state is $487 million behind on payments to the University of Illinois. State government has a budget deficit of $13 billion.
In Olympia, Wash., a group of about 75 protesters arrived at the Capitol bearing a faux coffin emblazoned with the slogan "R.I.P. Education."
They were later ejected from the state Senate gallery after interrupting a debate with a protest song that followed the tune of "Amazing Grace."
"I once could eat, but now I find, I can't afford the food," they sang.
Several Democratic senators applauded the performance, as security guards escorted the protesters from the building.
In Northern California, rowdy protesters blocked major gates at two universities and smashed the windows of a car.
Protesters at the University of California, Santa Cruz surrounded the car while its uninjured driver was inside. Earlier, demonstrators blocked campus gates.
University provost David Kliger said there were reports of protesters carrying clubs and knives, but Santa Cruz police Capt. Steve Clark could not confirm those reports. No arrests had been made.
An advisory posted on the school Web site urged people to avoid the campus because of safety concerns.
At the University of California, Berkeley, a small group of protesters formed a human chain blocking a main gate to the campus. Later in the day, hundreds gathered for a peaceful rally.
"We're one of the largest economies in the world, and we can't fund the basics," said Mike Scullin, 29, a graduate student in education who plans to become a high school teacher. "We're throwing away a generation of students by defunding education."
At the University of Texas at Austin, about 100 students and staff rallied on campus to protest a 5.4 percent hike in tuition and fees approved by regents a day earlier. Protesters complained the quality of education was taking a backseat to the university's bottom line.
Officials said the tuition hikes, which include another 3.89 percent jump for the fall of 2011, were necessary to avoid cuts in the face of declining endowment payouts and an anticipated cut in state aid.
In Alabama, Broderick Thomas, a 23-year-old Auburn senior, attended an annual higher education rally in Montgomery and said he feels "it's the moral duty of the state to give back what they promised."
However, the chairman of the state Senate education budget committee, Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, curbed the enthusiasm, saying it would be hard to find additional funds for higher education this year.
"I wish we could give all the money higher education needs," Sanders said, as some in the crowd groaned. "We're having to cut up to $460 million out of the budget the governor recommended."
Students, teachers, parents and school employees from across California gathered in Sacramento for a midday rally at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to restore funding to public schools.
Linda Wall, a state Department of Mental Health employee, said she had two children attending Sacramento State University. Hikes in student fees and mandatory furloughs for state workers have strained her budget.
"Their tuition has taken a big chunk of my paycheck and my paycheck is shrinking, so it's a double whammy," Wall said.
Associated Press Writers Marcus Wohlsen in San Francisco, Robin Hindery in Sacramento, Calif., David Mercer in Urbana, Ill., April Castro in Austin, Texas, Bob Johnson in Montgomery, Ala., Curt Woodward in Olympia, Wash., and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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