Tens of thousands of students and their supporters packed the streets of this capital on Tuesday for a march to demand improvements to Chile's poorly funded public education system.

The demonstration saw far fewer clashes with police than last week's student protests in Santiago.

Organizers estimated the number of participants in Tuesday's event at more than 150,000, while authorities cited a figure of around 50,000.

"The march has been significant in the number of people who have mobilized and because it has taken place without major disruptions to public order," government spokesman Andres Chadwick said.

Convened by organizations representing high school and university students, the march was also supported by educators, grassroots groups and labor unions.

Chilean students took to the streets in large numbers more than 40 times in 2011 to denounce a highly stratified education system that funnels state subsidies to private institutions even as public schools in poor areas struggle.

The protests have continued this year, but Tuesday's mobilization was the first of 2012 to enjoy official backing from teachers and professors unions and other elements of organized labor.

This latest march unfolded in a festive atmosphere and culminated with a concert in Santiago's Blanco Encalada neighborhood.

After the performance, small groups of hooded militants threw sticks and stones at riot police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon to repel the attackers and disperse the still-peaceful majority of the protesters,

Smaller demonstrations took place Tuesday in other Chilean cities, including Concepcion, Temuco, Punta Arenas, Valparaiso, Viña del Mar and Antofagasta.

"Today there is a majority of the people who are fighting for a common goal, which is to recover our right to public, free and quality education for all Chileans," the vice president of the Chile Students Federation, Camila Vallejo, told the media.

The largely peaceful march on Tuesday came after weeks of protests that included student occupations of Santiago high schools punctuated by police operations to evict the occupiers.

Chile's public schools and universities were neglected by the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who embraced doctrinaire free market policies.

Private schools mushroomed under the military regime and the trend continued after democracy was restored, even during the 1990-2010 tenure of the center-left Concertacion coalition.

The students want public primary and secondary schools to be administered centrally - not at the level of individual municipalities, as is currently the case - as well as the elimination of school fees.

The movement also demands an end to for-profit universities and a reduction in the high cost of college, which forces many students to take on large debt.

President Sebastian Piñera, a right-wing billionaire, has taken steps to make college more affordable for low-income students and is now asking Congress to pass a tax reform bill that would generate as much as $1 billion in additional education funding.

Critics dismiss that figure as woefully inadequate. EFE