An Ohio program that helps bridge the gap between rich and poor school districts by putting computers in classrooms would be slashed 70 percent under Gov. Bob Taft’s budget proposal. Since its inception in 1995, the SchoolNet program has twice been cited by the Ohio Supreme Court as one of the few positive education initiatives taken by state officials since they were sued by a coalition of schools for failing to provide an adequate education to all students.

Taft’s proposed state budget calls for cutting the SchoolNet Commission’s budget in the fiscal year beginning July 1 to $43.3 million from this year’s $146.1 million. The governor’s office said the program has accomplished its initial goals and cannot be extended because of a slowing economy and a tight budget.

SchoolNet was a $95 million initiative headed in 1994 by former Gov. George V. Voinovich. Of that total, $50 million went toward wiring some classrooms in 661 public and joint vocational school districts, and the rest was used to purchase computers for poor schools.

In 1996, SchoolNet Plus was initiated to put computers in every public classroom from kindergarten through fifth grade.

“The only reason some of the less-affluent districts have computers in their kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms is because of SchoolNet … and many of the computers have been around long enough that they need updating or replacing,” said William Phillis, executive director of the Ohio Coalition for Equity and Adequacy in Education.

“Instead of cutting back on the various technologies, the state ought to be enhancing them as an efficient means of helping districts to expand their course offerings,” Phillis said.

The Ohio Supreme Court, which twice has found the state’s school-funding system unconstitutional, has called the SchoolNet program “critical” and seemed to urge its expansion in a ruling last May.

“The SchoolNet and SchoolNet Plus programs … continue to evolve and are clearly positive steps,” Justice Alice Robie Resnick wrote in a 4-3 decision finding the state’s school-funding system unacceptable. “Yet there is so much yet to be done in this area. We are still a long way from the goal of providing sufficient computers to allow a high-quality education in the computer age.”