VERNAL — It's not even 8 a.m. and hammers are already swinging in Charlie Davis' classroom.
The teens are learning to build a house from start to finish. But their classroom isn't located at Uintah High School. Instead, it's across the street at Uintah Basin Applied Technology College.
"We do some concrete, all the framing," Davis said. "We do the electrical, the plumbing, drywall, finish work, hand the doors and windows, roof it and side it."
Until last year, it didn't cost the Uintah School District anything to have the 50 students who fill Davis' classes each trimester spend an hour each school day learning employable skills like how to read blueprints and wire light fixtures. The district still received the Weighted Pupil Unit funds from the state for each kid, even though they weren't in a district classroom.
That changed during the 2011 legislative session. Citing concerns raised in an audit about "double-dipping," lawmakers passed a budget bill that took WPU funds away from districts if students left campus to attend classes at Utah Applied Technology College campuses.
School superintendents from around Utah said the changes cut an estimated $4.1 million statewide from their 2011-12 budgets. The Davis School District has been hit hardest — $643,406 lost this year. Another 24 districts and eight charter schools are also being affected.
"There is an overall move to make sure that the dollars follow the student," said Rep. Kraig Powell. "That's kind of a movement here on Capitol Hill — to take money away when there's not a student actually in the classroom or in the seat."
The Republican from Heber City said such thinking is far too simplistic. He's sponsoring HB258, which would restore funding to high schools for students attending technology college classes.
"Our education funding is much more than just mouthing those simple platitudes of, 'Well there's no person in the seat, and so we shouldn't be sending them dollars,'" Powell said. "That doesn't actually capture the full reality of how we educate students in the state of Utah."
Powell's bill has unanimous support from the state's 41 superintendents. Some traveled to the Capitol Thursday to meet with lawmakers and plead their case. Duchesne County Schools Superintendent David Brotherson said he left the meeting feeling "a little bit better" about the likelihood that HB258 would pass.
Still, the measure faces fierce opposition from groups like the Utah Taxpayers Association.
The organization presented lawmakers with information Wednesday that shows the lost funding only represents a small percentage of the school districts' total budgets. The $643,406 lost by the Davis District, for instance, only represents 0.16 percent of its budget, according to the association.
School officials dispute those numbers, saying that if restricted funds — dollars districts are required to spend on specific things, like transportation — are removed from the equation, the cuts actually range between 3 percent and 5 percent.
Regardless of the percentages, opponents of Powell's bill say state education dollars are too precious to squander by allowing school districts and ATCs to collect funds for the same students.
"We need to focus those scarce education dollars where they're going to make the most difference, and that's really where the children are," said Utah Taxpayers Association Vice President Royce Van Tassell.
The real issue goes beyond the debate over funding for high school students who take concurrent classes on UCAT campuses, Van Tassell said.
"There are a number of instances where you have people going to (LDS) Seminary or for concurrent enrollment and right now we are funding those imperfectly," he said. "The first discussion over UCAT and school districts is just the tip of that iceberg."
Rep. Merlynn Newbold, R-South Jordan, told the Deseret News that she favors a compromise bill that would amend the existing law to phase out funding over several years, rather than end it abruptly.
"I think it's the right approach," she said. "I don't think we should have a cliff. I think we ought to allow some time to grow out of this."
Lawmakers have approved some one-time money for the current fiscal year to allow for such a compromise to happen, Newbold said.
Back in his classroom in Vernal, Davis said it would be "a shame" if high school students lost out on the opportunity to enroll in technology classes while working toward a diploma.
"A lot of these kids aren't all going to go to college to get a Ph.D.," Davis said. "A lot of these kids are going to be the main workforce of America."