TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — An independent government watchdog group on Monday released a biting report on the controversial 'Schools of Hope' charter school expansion law passed in 2017.

  • Integrity Florida releases report on charter school investment
  • Questions why leaders have invested public funds into charter schools
  • At least 373 charter schools have closed their doors since 1998

The group faults the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature for diverting a growing share of public education dollars to privately-run enterprises that all too often fail.

The report by Integrity Florida questions the decision by state leaders to invest more in charter schools "when at least 373 charter schools have closed their doors" since 1998.

In the 2015-16 school year, 35 Florida charters were shuttered, generally because of financial difficulties -- the most of any state.

"Once they close, it's impossible for the state to claw back those funds, and so, that's a cost," Integrity Florida Executive Director Ben Wilcox told a Tallahassee press conference. "But then, there's also a cost for the traditional schools that have to pick up those students and absorb the faculty that have been displaced when the charter school closes."

Schools of Hope was a top initiative of House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O'Lakes), whose wife runs a Tampa Bay-area charter school. The speaker won approval of a $200 million fund to help charter school corporations build campuses in areas served by perennially failing schools.

"When you can get those people and those students, the people to come and then educate those students so that they no longer have that generational poverty, and they have dignity and they have a future, that's a priority," Corcoran said last year.

Indeed, the report finds that 42 percent of Florida charter schools received an 'A' grade in the 2016-17 school year, significantly higher than the 30 percent of all schools that receive As.

But Integrity Florida charges that the disparity is misleading because many charters engage in "cherry picking" their students.

And the report accuses many of the Capitol's majority Republicans of personally profiting from charter school expansion.

It ticks off a list of Republican lawmakers -- including Speaker Corcoran, Sen. Anitere Flores and Reps. Michael Bileca and Manny Diaz -- who maintain close professional relationships with the charter school industry.

Those relationships, Wilcox argues, have enriched legislators and charter school operators at the expense of taxpayers, who are left on the hook when charters - and the traditional public schools they compete with - fail.

"What we think is really happening here is that these schools that should be private schools are accessing public funds. They are giving parents and students more choices, but that choice comes at a cost," Wilcox said.