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Thousands staged raucous rallies on campuses across the state and nation Thursday to protest tuition hikes and spending cuts in education, with some protesters going as far as shutting down Interstate 880 in Oakland during rush hour.

Called a "strike and day of action to defend public education" by organizers, the demonstrations at colleges, universities and elementary schools started out boisterous but largely peaceful.

As the day progressed, there were confrontations with police at several schools when protesters blocked campus and building entrances.

Late Thursday afternoon, more than 150 people clambered onto the freeway in Oakland, stopping traffic in both directions, according to the CHP. Police arrested about 120 protesters, and one person was in critical condition after jumping from the elevated freeway, said Jeff Thomason, a spokesman for the Oakland Police Department.

Nearly 300 protesters near UC Davis tried to block a freeway onramp. The tense standoff ended when police fired pepper spray into the crowd. One female student was arrested.

At UC Berkeley, a small group of protesters formed a human chain blocking the main gate to the campus.

Later in the day, hundreds gathered for a peaceful rally in the middle of a busy intersection near Sproul Plaza.

"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."

Protesters at UC Santa Cruz smashed the windows of a car and surrounded the car while its uninjured driver was inside.

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.

One of the largest demonstrations in California took place 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 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 studzents avoiding classes in a show of protest.

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 police, according to a university spokesman.

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.

Protests extended to the earliest levels of education, with students, parents and staff protesting at elementary schools. The cuts are especially painful in economically depressed areas like Richmond, where unemployment is 17.6 percent.

"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.

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.

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."

This article is compiled from reports by the New York Times and Associated Press.