The mostly peaceful gatherings brought to the streets people who had experienced the state cuts in a variety of ways: layoffs, student-fee hikes, an inability to get into classes. The protests, billed as a Day of Action, also were staged in other states.
In a break from the relatively uneventful rallies, more than 150 protesters were arrested after they marched onto Interstate 880 in downtown Oakland as the evening commute was beginning, shutting the roadway in both directions. One person was hospitalized after falling from a tree near the freeway; his name and condition were not immediately known.
After holding a midday rally that blocked the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue near UC Berkeley, about 1,000 demonstrators walked nearly five miles from the campus to Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, in front of Oakland City Hall. There, they joined with at least 200 community-college and high-school students and employees to rail against legislators, school administrators, the media and a variety of other groups.
State and school leaders are "morally bankrupt," UC Berkeley librarian Jason Schultz told the Oakland crowd.
"It's messed up, folks," he shouted. "Let's reclaim this university."
Protesters blocked the main entrance of Oakland City Hall with a large banner reading, "Fight Back."
Despite the late arrests, school officials and authorities expressed relief at the mostly quiet protests. Police had admitted some apprehension about the protests, especially after last week's overnight UC Berkeley rally, which led to vandalism to campus buildings and nearby businesses.
In Concord, more than 300 students and parents walked off the Mt. Diablo High School campus just after 1 p.m., eliciting compliments from administrators and police for their behavior.
"They did a good job," School Resource Officer Todd Stroud said. "There were no problems."
The protests followed months of growing unrest throughout the state's educational institutions, including violent clashes between demonstrators and police at UC Berkeley in the fall and last week.
Grievances have ranged from union contract disputes to steep student-fee hikes at the Cal State and University of California systems. Both systems have approved 32-percent tuition hikes in the past year to soften the blows of back-to-back budget cuts. Over the past two years, the 23-campus Cal State system has lost more than $600 million in state funding, while UC's state budget was cut by about $800 million.
California's 110 community colleges estimate they have lost 200,000 students who have been unable to get the classes they need this year.
High-school students and teachers at the Oakland rally lamented the effects of budget cuts on their campuses. Doriana Smith, 16, said her high school on East Oakland's Fremont campus might lose some of her favorite teachers.
"This is actually the very first march I've been in," said Smith, who walked downtown from the Fruitvale BART station. "This hit home for me."
Several school districts held disaster drills to illustrate the funding crisis. Teachers and other school employees protested at major intersections in El Cerrito, Hercules, Fremont and Newark, where board members approved layoff notices for 61 teachers this week.
"Public education is at risk if the Legislature doesn't act to give more money to schools," said Pixie Hayward Schickele, president of the teachers union in the West Contra Costa school district.
Late Thursday, hundreds of protesters from the East Bay made their way to the San Francisco Civic Center, where they joined others from throughout the Bay Area for a noisy, upbeat rally.
The decline of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, classroom aides and secretaries have created real hardship for children in poorer districts, said Robin Hill, an office technician with San Jose school district.
"We can't support the kids in the way we would like to," Hill said. "Paper, pens and pencils -- they are all lacking."
A mother-daughter pair of teachers from San Mateo carried a symbolic coffin through the throngs of protesters.
Wendy Smithers, a third-grade teacher, and Aura Smithers, her daughter, who teaches seventh grade, said the coffin represents the death of teaching jobs, counselors and small class sizes.
"It's the death of the future success of our children," Aura Smithers. "I know it's a real tough economic time, but cutting education is just going to be more detrimental to our communities to our society and to our state as a whole, enough is enough."
At the state level, most agree the problem stems from a lack of revenue, and many have also pointed at California's overflowing prison system, which gets more funding than higher education. But, with a two-thirds majority needed to pass the state budget through the Legislature, structural change is unlikely in the near future.
Widespread protests by students and teachers affected by budget cuts could be the best way to change the system, Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, said.
"I think most legislators don't have a clue," Torrico said in a phone interview from Sacramento. "They forget about the human impact of budget cuts."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would not comment on the rallies Thursday, but on Wednesday night he spoke to a group of educators and said he essentially agreed with the message of the protests.
"I always tell everybody that the squeaky wheels get the grease, so therefore I am all for people letting their voice be heard and letting also the Legislature know here," he said.
The crowd at UC Berkeley appeared to be the largest campus gathering in the state, but hundreds also demonstrated at other universities, including 500 each at UC schools in San Diego and Riverside. Protesters shut down UC Santa Cruz, and some UC Davis students clashed with police who fired bean bags, tear gas and pepper spray, as protesters locked arms and tried to block Interstate 80, according to The California Aggie, the campus newspaper.
University leaders praised the movement, but warned that sustained pressure on Sacramento will be needed.
"These are students or union workers who have a stake in the game," UC spokesman Peter King said as he watched the downtown Oakland demonstration. "The greater movement will be when you see Californians who don't yet know they have a stake participating."
One difficulty for protesters has been avoiding alienating those who would ordinarily be sympathetic to the cause. At UC Berkeley, for example, demonstrators angered some fellow students Thursday when they disrupted classes.
"I support the cause, but I just don't know if they're going about it the right way," said Tyler Eckert, a student whose class was interrupted. "I don't think you're supporting the cause by infringing on other people's rights."
While some student leaders cursed the police repeatedly during speeches Thursday, others urged calm and said nonviolent protest would be more helpful.
The key to a successful Day of Action is educating the public, said UC Berkeley student Peter Hurtubise, holding a "Keep Education Accessible" sign.
"We're planting seeds in the ground, but we don't know if they're going to grow," he said. "We're just basically telling people what they already know, that education is more important than prisons."
Bay Area News Group staff writers Katy Murphy, Kristin Bender, Theresa Harrington, Linh Tat, Shelly Meron, Angela Woodall, Steve Harmon, Karen de Sa, and Doug Oakley contributed to this story. Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 925-943-8246. Follow him at Twitter.com/mattkrupnick.