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Published in Print: September 18, 2002, as WorldCom Fall Imperils Ed. Tech Aid

WorldCom Fall Imperils Ed. Tech Aid

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An Internet training program for educators that was adopted by 50 states and has been used by more than 180,000 teachers has been struggling for survival because of the financial free fall of its primary benefactor, WorldCom Inc.

The program, called MarcoPolo, offers teachers free Web-based educational resources and face-to-face training in how to use the Internet in their classrooms. WorldCom and MCI Communications, which started the program before WorldCom purchased MCI in 1999, have together given the MarcoPolo program $50 million since 1997.

Before WorldCom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this past July, MarcoPolo aimed to train 2.4 million teachers by 2005. But that goal is now in serious jeopardy as the fate of the program itself hangs in the balance.

"It is a very bad time," said Caleb M. Schutz, who is in charge of MarcoPolo, which is based at WorldCom's headquarters in Ashburn, Va. "You couldn't have much of a worse climate economically for federal and state government funding, which I'm trying to get, or for private and foundation funding, which I'm trying to get."

Without major new funding sources, MarcoPolo's training programs will probably shut down sometime in this school year, he said.

Undoubtedly, experts said, MarcoPolo's troubles are an extreme example of what can happen to any philanthropically supported education initiative during sluggish economic times. But they also said the program's shaky future further illustrates the difficult challenges facing corporate- sponsored education initiatives.

"When companies face financial hard times, in order to make a profit, they have to cut expenses, and philanthropy is an expense," says Melissa S. Brown, the managing editor of "Giving usa," an annual report on individual, corporate, and foundation giving by the Indianapolis- based American Association of Fundraising Counsel Trust.

Overall, she said, corporations are either giving fewer dollars or just maintaining their funding levels for philanthropic purposes. Corporate giving fell by 12 percent last year, according to the AAFRC report.

Since the WorldCom bankruptcy filing, which has been surrounded by allegations of accounting fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the arrests of key officers, MarcoPolo has distanced itself from the telecommunications giant by getting the company's permission to remove its once-ubiquitous logo from the program's Web site. The program also has formed the independent, nonprofit MarcoPolo Education Foundation, although Mr. Schutz, who is serving as the foundation's president, and the rest of the program's staff of 40 remain on WorldCom's payroll.

As of last week, the foundation had received only pledges of $96,000 from a bank in Seattle and $10,000 from the Mississippi state education department.

One potential wellspring of support is state education departments, Mr. Schutz said. He said that he had received letters of support from state schools superintendents in Mississippi, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Virginia, and added that "more are in the works."

Ironically, when WorldCom filed for bankruptcy protection, Marco Polo had just achieved the rare status of being adopted by all 50 states. The extent of those relationships varied, but generally consisted of arrangements to add MarcoPolo training to the states' professional-development programs, linking the MarcoPolo site to the state education departments' Web pages, and correlating MarcoPolo materials with states' academic standards.

Theoretically, states could support the program with federal block grants for teacher training under the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But that's "really a lot to ask of states, as it's been cut off with no lead time," said Mr. Schutz, who has been traveling across the country to enlist state officials to help save his program.

In an Aug. 21 letter to Mr. Schutz, South Carolina's state schools chief, Inez M. Tenenbaum, wrote that her state favored supporting the Marco Polo program with state money while the foundation searched for funding. Mississippi has also pledged $10,000.

Ms. Tenenbaum wrote that MarcoPolo lesson plans were an "integral part" of South Carolina's collection of online resources for teachers.

Maryland, however, pulled back from the program over the summer, although state officials said they were just adjusting their priorities. Many Maryland school districts still use MarcoPolo training, the program's officials said.

Stipends Cut

MarcoPolo officials underscore that WorldCom's situation has not yet stopped the training programs: More than 17,000 teachers have been trained since the company announced its bankruptcy filing.

The continued service is due largely to the grace of the programs' 100 "cadre trainers," who teach teachers and administrators, who in turn are expected to train educators in their schools and districts.

Susan DePlatchett, a professional-development coordinator at the University of Maryland's college of education and a MarcoPolo trainer in her state, has conducted four one-day training sessions in Maryland and Virginia school districts since the WorldCom bankruptcy filing. She is planning to fulfill her commitment to do several more between now and November, even though she will no longer receive compensation for her expenses, and the $300 daily stipend the program has paid trainers has been slashed to $200.

Still, she did cancel a training appointment in Alabama because she would had to have paid for the plane ticket herself.

"When the bankruptcy hit, I said I believe so strongly in the program I would be willing to fulfill my commitment to the training on a voluntary basis," she said.

Training revolves around learning to use the MarcoPolo Web site, which is a combination of carefully integrated Web sites by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the National Council on Economic Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Geographic Society.

Partner sites by the International Reading Association and the National Council of Teachers of English are due to be added to the Web site in October.

Each site has some of the best resources that the group has to offer—all correlated to national, and in some cases, state academic standards.

The sites are also integrated with one another and can be searched with a common search engine. That makes the site especially useful to teachers who use an interdisciplinary approach, Ms. DePlatchett said.

Staff Writer Rhea R. Borja contributed to this report.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 22, Issue 3, Pages 1,16

Web Resources
  • MarcoPolo provides information on its instructional philosophy and its teacher-training program. Also, read more about the new MarcoPolo Education Foundation, established to "ensure the future of the MarcoPolo program" in light of the precarious financial position of WorldCom, Inc.
  • Following its reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, WorldCom, Inc.—which over the last five years provided $50 million for the development of the MarcoPolo program—has established a restructuring information desk with information available on all aspects of the company's restructuring and the Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Code.
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