It started in 1998 with an experiment focused on giving choice to the parents of a few thousand poor kids stuck in poorly performing big city schools. But by 2014, it has expanded to a nearly $1 billion per year annual siphon from the budgets of all of Ohio’s school districts.

It’s an Ohio Community School folly, one that our General Assembly keeps expanding and subsidizing, despite persistent evidence of waste and fraud.

Community Schools, commonly referred to as charters, are privately operated with public funds—this year, the base subsidy is about $5,800 per child, with a variety of potential add-ons. The state money follows the child, and comes directly from your local school district’s state distribution. The Cincinnati School District now sees more than $52 million deducted from its annual state allocation, which follows about 7,600 children whose parents have chosen Charter alternatives.

The school choice movement is based on a market-driven concept that the customer is always right. But educational competition is not turning out so well for thousands of kids—mostly low-income—whose parents have been persuaded to abandon their local school district for the corner (or cyber) Charter School. It’s not good for Ohio taxpayers footing the bill, either.

We’ve all seen the headlines:

One local charter school—VLT Academy—shut down in June 2014 and left parents in the lurch amid accusations of nepotism and poor student performance.

The State Auditor’s findings against Cincinnati College Preparatory Academy in 2013 alleged that $520,000 had been misspent on goodies like football and theater tickets, travel and cocktails, leading to the indictment of its former Treasurer and Superintendent.

Those are just the Mom-and-Pop places. The heavy roller action belongs to White Hat Management who have taken home about $1 billion in state education dollars since 1998. White Hat is now in the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that computers and equipment bought for its schools with Ohio education dollars actually belong to White Hat, not to the taxpayers, let alone to the schools they were contracted to manage.

While taxpayers are picking up the outrageous tab from the community school explosion, the biggest victims may be the kids whose parents succumb to the slick marketing tactics.

A guide published by the Ohio School Boards Association documents that state report cards for the 2012-13 school year rated more than 60 percent of Ohio’s charter schools as either D or F, as compared to only 20 percent of traditional public schools in those categories.

The public interest group Innovation Ohio recently compared the report cards of Ohio’s Community schools with those of their local traditional public schools, finding that more than half of the children attending community schools are leaving districts that actually perform better! That means well over half of the $903 million in state money spent on Charter schools this past school year actually goes to schools that do worse on state report cards than the local school districts students would otherwise attend.

Why do Charters perform so poorly? According to Innovation Ohio, on average Ohio Charters spend about double on non-instructional administrative costs than traditional public schools.

Where does that money go? Slick marketing. Bloated management salaries. Sweetheart agreements with for-profit”managers.

Yes, parents, there may be a few quality Charter school diamonds in the rough of Ohio’s nearly 400 Charters. But before abandoning your local school district for this confusing marketplace, compare state report cards (available on the ODE website); look closely at the managers; and research the track record of any Charter before betting your child’s future on it. 

Don Mooney is a partner at the Cincinnati office of Ulmer & Berne LLC, and is active in local politics.