PHOENIX — A new opinion from Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich is leaving dozens of young adults who are locked up in Pima County jail without the funding to help them complete a high school diploma.
Brnovich acknowledged that state aid is available for school districts for anyone younger than 22. And Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams said his office runs a state-recognized school district for anyone younger than 22 who is locked up.
But Brnovich said he reads the law to require the state to provide funds only for those younger than 18.
The only exception, the attorney general said, is when the person in the county jail has a disability. In those cases, state aid runs through age 21.
Monday’s opinion drew an angry reaction from Williams, who said the cutoff of state dollars has left more than four-dozen students his district had been helping without education opportunities.
“How in the world are we not educating probably the most neediest kids and start to tackle this school-to-prison pipeline and start to tackle this recidivism that is out of control,” he said.
“I would reckon to bet that 100 percent of the taxpayers don’t want these individuals just sitting there doing nothing all day. I think they would prefer if they were getting an education or finishing up on some school while they’re incarcerated.”
An aide to Brnovich defended the opinion.
“We follow what the law says, not what we want it to be or what we think it should be,” said Ryan Anderson.
At the heart of the battle is a state law that says all schools shall admit all children who are between the ages of 16 and 21 who reside in the district and who have not graduated from high school.
Williams, as county schools chief, runs an “accommodation” school district for youngsters who are locked up, complete with a principal and teachers. That makes his district eligible for state aid, just like any other district.
He said it’s bad enough that state law pays him just 72 percent of what other districts get, a figure that comes out at about $3,100 per student per year.
“I lose 28 cents on every kid,” Williams said.
Williams said he worked with Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, last year to get the same funding as other districts. That bill cleared the Senate Education Committee but never got any further.
As it turned out, the state Department of Education, changing its auditing procedures, concluded that he was entitled to no funds at all for those who have turned 18.
The Pima County Attorney’s Office disagreed, issuing its own formal opinion in a bid to get the dollars restored. But Brnovich, by law, gets the last word.
The result, said Williams, is that the program for about 50 people in that age group has gone away.
“Now we’re not getting anything and those individuals are just sitting there,” he said.
But Brnovich, in his opinion, said the legal issue boils down to the wording of state laws: Counties are required to provide education services to incarcerated youths only until they reach age 18, with the exception of those with disabilities.
“Their meaning is clear: State funding is available only for the two categories of prisoners to whom county must offer a jail education program,” he wrote. And Brnovich said the fact that schools are required to admit anyone through age 21 does not mean the state has to provide aid if the school is run as part of a jail.
Williams said that with the state funding gone he is pursuing alternatives to help those who are locked up but are 18 or older get a chance for a diploma.
One option, he said, would be to have those inmates earn GEDs, or general education diplomas, through online courses offered through Pima Community College. But Williams said that should not be necessary.
“We’re a full-on district school,” he said. “I’ve got principals and teachers and experts, all certified.”
Williams said Arizona should be doing more to help ensure that all students have a chance to get a diploma.
“We need to be progressive in this state, and we need to be progressive towards incarcerated individuals, period,” he said.
Williams also said he hopes to persuade Gov. Doug Ducey to pursue a change in the law.
“He has said that the direction of the state (that) he wants to focus on incarcerated youths,” Williams said.