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This week, Chicago announced that it's closing 54 underused public schools to save money. Parents say they'll fight to keep them open. School closings, of course, are not new but in a growing number of districts, what was once seen as a local decision to close schools has now become a politically-charged campaign by civil rights activists who contend that school closings are disproportionately hurting poor minority communities.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: People opposed to school closings have almost never organized beyond their own neighborhoods, let alone marched on Washington. Until recently.

HELEN MOORE: I came here to demand. I ain't asking for not a damn thing.

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MOORE: I'm telling you I'm demanding an education for our children. They are our schools. They are our children. It is our money.

SANCHEZ: That's Helen Moore, a community organizer from Detroit who earlier this year joined over 200 protesters from 18 cities, calling for a moratorium on school closings nationwide.

In cities like Detroit; Flint, Michigan; Oakland, California; Chicago; New York City and Philadelphia, schools are closing because they're half empty. The reason they're half empty has intrigued researchers like Emily Dowdall.

EMILY DOWDALL: And we were actually pretty surprised to find that no one else has taken a comprehensive look at this issue.

SANCHEZ: Dowdall is with the Pew Charitable Trust. She co-authored two recent studies examining school closures in 12 cities. Two trends stood out.

DOWDALL: The number of school-age children is falling in these cities. Even in cases where the overall population is up. The second main trend is the growth of charter schools, which has just been very rapid, very massive over the last decade or so.

SANCHEZ: Everywhere she looked, Dowdall says school closings are disproportionately displacing poor, black and Latino students.

DOWDALL: It's not isolated in one or two cities that have lost a lot of population. It's actually very common even in cities that are seen as economic successes, like Washington, D.C., like Chicago.

SANCHEZ: That's why school closing are getting more attention. And community activists blame the Obama administration for letting it happen. The stated goal of the administration's education agenda after all, is to shut down failing schools and promote the expansion of publically-funded, privately run charter schools.

Mike Casserly, head of the Council of Great City Schools, says charter schools are siphoning off kids from traditional public schools, especially in the inner city where charter schools have grown the fastest.

MIKE CASSERLY: And I think the administration should be mindful of the backlash that it's getting on that.

SANCHEZ: That backlash has been especially intense in school systems where kids have been forced to transfer to rival neighborhood schools where their safety has been a huge concern. Or in districts where the schools kids transfer to are overcrowded and academically no better than the schools that closed.

But Mike Casserly says the key justification for closing schools is money. Districts cannot afford to keep half empty schools open.

CASSERLY: That's why this situation is so difficult because schools play a very, very important role in the neighborhood and the community. On the other hand, the ongoing economic pressures necessitate cost effectiveness that taxpayers raise.

SANCHEZ: It's an argument that community activists like Jito Brown, from Chicago, rejected when he came to the rally in Washington.

JITO BROWN: You're looking at communities being destroyed - ripped apart. Outrage is everywhere.

SANCHEZ: At least 10 cities have filed complaints with the Education Department's Office of Civil Rights since January. Another 33 complaints in 22 states are pending. But there's no indication that school closings will stop anytime soon.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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