CHICAGO

- The Chicago Board of Education voted yesterday to close 50 schools and programs, an ambitious plan that has sparked protests and lawsuits and could help define - for better or worse - Mayor Rahm Emanuel's term in office.

City officials say the closings are necessary because of falling school enrollment and as part of their efforts to improve the city's struggling education system.

"The only consideration for us today is to do exactly what is right for the children," schools chief executive Barbara Byrd-Bennett said before the board's vote.

Critics have blasted Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, and Byrd-Bennett, saying the closings disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods and would endanger children who may have to cross gangland boundaries to get to a new school.

They protested during the board's meeting yesterday and sent busloads of parents, teachers and students to Springfield to lobby lawmakers to approve a moratorium on the closings. Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called it "a day of mourning" for the children of Chicago.

She also pledged to start a voter registration drive in an attempt to register 200,000 new voters before the 2015 municipal elections - when Emanuel will be up for re-election - and to raise funds to support candidates for mayor, city council and statewide office.

"We know that we may not win every seat we intend to target but with research, polling, money and people power we can win some of them," Lewis said.

Many experts say it is the largest number of closings at any one time by any school district in recent memory.