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

In an effort to provide the best education to students across the country, legislation is constantly being reformed. All these new education policies tend to help, but they are often difficult to implement and difficult for parents to understand.

That’s where Odyssey the company has developed an end-to-end public funding and e-commerce platform for program administration that makes educational offerings, such as tuition, tutoring, technology and extracurricular enrichment, more accessible.

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

Some advocate that students attend any school, such as a religiously sponsored private school, charter school, home school, or other small learning environment, and have that federal funding follow the student. The global pandemic has also taught us that teaching must be flexible, which has opened doors for companies, e.g Hand overto provide ways for someone to start their own «micro-school».

Challenges of educational policy implementation

Joseph Connor, founder and CEO of Odyssey

Joseph Connor, founder and CEO of Odyssey, knows this all too well. He began teaching in low-income charter schools in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and San Jose. He then decided to move on to law school where he also consulted on early education choice policies in Indiana, Louisiana and Florida.

Most states have amendments called the Blaine Amendments, which were passed in the late 19th century, and whose goal was to prevent the use of public funds in parochial schools. Connor worked for a company that helped 2020 Espinoza v. Montana IRS a case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that a funding policy that discriminated against schools based on their religious status violated the First Amendment. He said the case «paved the way for the policies we help guide today.»

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After that ruling, Connor started his own network of schools where he saw firsthand how challenging the implementation of the new education policies was, but also how beneficial they were to parents when implemented properly.

“States tried to run them on their own and they were very complex,” Connor told TechCrunch. «In some cases, they were working with traditional software vendors that weren’t very well equipped to implement this particular policy.»

Laying the foundations for an easier choice of school

So three years ago, he launched Odyssey as a tech startup to help states in several ways. First, it educates parents about what the Education Savings Program is, who is eligible for it, and how to apply. It then manages the application process, working with the state agency to develop application questions, perform the identity verification process, and enable schools to accept tuition.

«Historically, one of the biggest implementation blockers has been identity verification,» Connor said. “It can be a very slow process. Imagine that the state asks 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 find out if you qualify.”

Instead, Odyssey’s technology — which Connor touts as «the nation’s first real-time identity verification technology» that’s secure and scalable. Instead of the industry standard of 30 to 60 days, the company is able to tell a parent in less than five minutes, after submission, if they qualify and how much they would receive.

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The state is able to monitor and audit the entire process to reduce fraud and abuse. One of the major concerns of states that implement such programs is to ensure that parents spend the money for the intended purpose.

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

Expansion into more countries

The company serves more than 130,000 students in the tri-state areas of Iowa, Missouri and Idaho. It is also in discussions with several additional state governments.

Odyssey is paid for by the state, usually per student. Last year, the company recorded a three-fold increase in revenue.

Now the company is looking to hire several key executives and hire additional engineers. To do so, Odyssey recently raised $10 million in Series A funding. The round was led by Bradley Tusk of Tusk Venture Partners with additional support from existing investors 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. Right now, it’s only in the education sector, which he said will keep the company busy for years. However, with features such as a digital wallet and a state-regulated marketplace, there are opportunities to offer additional programs to states.

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

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«We want to influence policy and explain to states that don’t currently have programs why it’s important to have these programs and enable states to run these programs more effectively,» Connor said. «We really strongly believe that the best way to empower parents is through programs like this, so we want to make sure they’re available to everyone.»

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