As Ohio lurches toward more education cuts to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis, state legislators should be cutting wasteful spending. This means they should even consider cutting failed pet projects that have been coddled by lawmakers.

Limping toward its 7th year of existence, Ohio’s charter school program is one such project. The program has produced no academic return for our investment of state and local taxes, more than $200 million this year. Fiscal conservatives in the House of Representatives scrutinized every line item in the Ohio Department of Education’s budget with a fine toothcomb, yet they refused to even glance at the failed charter school program. With more than $600 million cut from K-12 and public higher education already, this program should be the first place lawmakers look to help balance the budget.

Charter school proponents sold the public a new approach to education. They promised taxpayers that if you ‘forget regulation and red tape, we’ll get results, never you mind how.’

The results are dismal.

Last year only 6% of charter school students at the elementary level passed the Ohio Proficiency Tests compared to 43% of public school students. The publicly funded, but privately operated schools also consistently perform worse than the urban school districts in which most are located.

When the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) issued report cards on charter schools in March, it neglected to give them the ratings that public school districts received. But, it’s easy to apply the formula used by ODE to give school districts a one or two word rating, which is the equivalent of a letter grade. The Coalition for Public Education did that, and found that 36 of 41 charter schools earned the state’s lowest rating, “academic emergency.” Eighteen other charter schools, inexcusably, did not report enough data such as student tests scores, to receive a rating.

Charter schools have also been plagued by financial scandals, safety issues, enrollment fraud and abrupt closings that leave students stranded, debts unpaid, and tax dollars missing.

So what has the State Legislature done in response to these dismal results? Charter school cheerleaders and lawmakers pushed partisan legislation through last year that doubled the number of charter schools permitted to operate. It also deregulates the program even further from public accountability.

So if it’s not about results, what drives the charter school expansion? There are dual forces at work: profits and campaign contributions.

Increasingly, for-profit companies dominate the charter school “market”. In fact, one company, White Hat Management Co., will pocket more than $40 million in state and local tax dollars this school year to operate 26 charter schools. White Hat owner David Brennan is also the Ohio’s largest individual contributor to candidates for state office. They are the legislators who vote to fund charter schools, as well as other elected officials who are supposed to enforce the laws and minimal regulations that apply to them.

Each of Brennan’s schools that received state report cards this year earned an ‘academic emergency’ rating. And, though two of his Cleveland charter schools have been operating for six years, their trend line does not go up.

Offering parents and students more choices within our public system is an important part of school reform. But, the ideologues in the General Assembly want a privatized, market system of education. And their product is dismal. We should refuse to expose our children to, and risk scarce tax dollars on this ‘buyer beware’ model. The state has a responsibility to ensure all of the choices offered to parents and students are of reasonable quality. Choice should be based on variations in curriculum emphasis or instructional methods, use of technology, even scheduling. Neither parents nor taxpayers should have to wonder which charter school is a scam.

In the beginning, the concept of charter schools was appealing. Many people desired small, autonomous, public schools that offered unique or innovative instructional program. The idea had great potential to contribute to public school reform and improvement, and it still does. But, in Ohio this concept has been hijacked by a coalition of profiteers, and ideologues in the legislature who believe in privatizing for the sake of privatizing.

In this budget crisis, $200 million is real money. At the least, the state should make efforts to be much more selective approving charter operators. Perhaps qualifications and track record ought to play a role in this decision. The charter school program ought to be rethought, and drastically scaled back. Ohio voters and taxpayers have the right to expect more from this high-cost endeavor.

Tom Mooney is the President of the Ohio Federation of Teachers and Chairman of the Coalition for Public Education