Tech startup Odyssey goes on journey to help states implement school choice programs

Tech Startup Odyssey Goes On Journey To Help States Implement School Choice Programs

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In the quest to provide the best education for students across the country, legislation is constantly being reformed. All of those new education policies typically help, but are often hard to implement and difficult for parents to understand.

That’s where Odyssey comes in. The company developed an end-to-end public fund disbursement and e-commerce platform for program administration that makes educational offerings, like school tuition, tutoring, technology and extracurricular enrichment, more accessible. 

One might think that with technology like that, states would be elbowing each other to get in on this. Alternative education, however, is a rather controversial topic for some when it goes beyond the traditional public school system. 

Some advocate for students to attend any school, for example, a religious-backed private school, charter school, home school or other small learning environment, and have that federal funding follow the student. The global pandemic also taught us that teaching needed to be flexible, which opened the door for companies, like Prenda, to provide ways for someone to start their own “microschool.” 

Education policy implementation challenges

Joseph Connor, founder and CEO of Odyssey

Joseph Connor, Odyssey’s founder and CEO, knows this all too well. He got his start teaching in low-income schools at charter schools in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and San Jose. He then decided to transition to law school where he also consulted for early education choice policies in Indiana, Louisiana and Florida. 

A majority of states have amendments called Blaine amendments that were enacted in the late 19th century that aimed to prevent public funds from being used at parochial schools. Connor worked for a firm that was helping with the 2020 Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue case where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that funding policies that discriminated against schools based on their religious status violated the First Amendment. He said that case “paved the way for the policies we help run today.” 

Following that ruling, Connor started his own network of schools where he saw firsthand how challenging implementation of new education policies were, but also how helpful they were to parents when implemented correctly.

“States tried to run them themselves and they were very complex,” Connor told TechCrunch. “In some cases, they worked with traditional software vendors that weren’t really well equipped to do this particular policy.”

Laying foundation for easier school choice

So he started Odyssey three years ago as a tech startup to help states in a few ways. First it educates parents on what an education savings account program is, who’s eligible for it and how to sign up. It then manages the application process, working with the state agency to create the application questions, handle the identity verification process and enable the schools to accept tuition.

“Historically, one of the biggest blockers for implementation has been on identity verification,” Connor said. “It can be a very slow process. Imagine the state is requesting you to give us your birth certificate or driver’s license. You may have to find a scanner and upload it, then wait a few weeks or up to 60 days, to hear if you are eligible.”

Instead, Odyssey’s technology — which Connor touts as “the first real-time identity verification tech in the country” that is both secure and scalable. Rather than the industry standard of 30 to 60 days, the company is able to tell a parent in less than five minutes, once submitted, if they’re eligible, and how much they’d be awarded.

The state is able to oversee and audit the entire process in order to reduce fraud and abuse. One of the big concerns of states administering these kinds of programs is making sure parents are spending the money on the intended purpose.

To do that, Odyssey’s platform includes a closed, private marketplace of vendors where products and services, regulated by the state, can be purchased using the education savings account. The company handles payment processing and customer support for those vendors and then data analysis for the state.

Expansion into more states

The company manages over 130,000 students across three states in Iowa, Missouri and Idaho. It’s also in discussions with a few additional state governments.

Odyssey is paid by state, typically per student. In the past year, the company saw revenue grow three times. 

Now the company wants to make a number of key leadership hires and bring on additional engineering folks. To do that, Odyssey recently raised $10 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Bradley Tusk of Tusk Venture Partners with additional backing from existing investor Katherine Boyle of Andreessen Horowitz, Ben Kohlmann of Cubit Capital and Ben Ling of Bling Capital.

Investors were particularly interested in what Odyssey was doing around real-time identity verification, Connor said. It is in the education sector only right now, which he said will keep the company with enough work for years. However, with the features, like the digital wallet and state-regulated marketplace, there are opportunities to offer additional programs to states.

The new funding will also enable the company to expand where it offers services. That includes scaling in states where it already is and going into new states. 

“We want to influence policy and states that don’t currently have programs explain to them why it’s important to have these programs and allow states to run these programs more efficiently,” Connor said. “We really believe strongly that the best way to empower parents is through these types of programs, and so we want to make sure that they’re accessible to everyone.”


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