Odyssey, a company founded and led by Joseph Connor ’16 J.D., is enabling parents to use Education Savings Accounts on a vast scale

Author: Charles Williams

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Joseph Connor ’16 J.D.

Joseph Connor ’16 J.D. was a teacher with a keen interest in education law and policy when he decided to study law at Notre Dame. Now he is the founder and CEO of Odyssey, a technology company that helps families access funding for the K-12 education of their choice.

In just the past year, his company has distributed over $110 million to the parents of more than 67,000 students through the Iowa Students First and the Idaho Empowering Parents programs, and is on track to launch another program, the Close the Gap program, in Missouri in the fall.

The seeds for his career as an education entrepreneur were planted at Notre Dame, where he served as a consultant to the Alliance for Catholic Education while pursuing his law degree. As a law student, he was a research assistant to a nationally recognized expert in education law: Nicole Stelle Garnett, the John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and associate dean for external engagement at Notre Dame Law School. He credits these experiences for helping him acquire the skills he needed to master complex state and federal education laws and regulations, and to clearly explain their ins and outs to schools, parents, and sometimes even the state regulators themselves.

After earning his J.D., Connor joined the Philadelphia firm Drinker Biddle & Reath as an associate. There he offered advice and counsel to startups, school networks, and nonprofits, and soon found himself writing an amicus brief in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the landmark school-choice case in which the Supreme Court ruled that a state provision prohibiting all aid to private schools controlled by a “church, sect, or denomination” unconstitutionally discriminated against religious schools and the families whose children attend or hope to attend them.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Many parents grew concerned about their children losing learning and social skills that are best acquired from in-person instruction. Seeing an unmet need, Connor raised $8.1 million to support a “microschools” network that quickly grew to include some 50 small, one-room schools across the Northeast, each of which typically enrolled between five and 15 students. He recruited qualified teachers and provided them with coaching, supplies, and health insurance, as well as support for the back-office work so that the teachers could focus on teaching.

The participating parents and students loved this alternative to spending a year or two at home alone in front of a computer screen. But microschools aren’t cheap, and Connor saw that a major impediment to his network’s continued growth was that, even in states with Education Savings Account (ESA) programs, which enable families to use public resources for a variety of educational expenses, including private-school tuition, parents had trouble accessing their funds in a timely way. After these programs were enacted, the ESA application process itself was time consuming, and then long delays often ensued before parents were told whether their applications had been accepted. Yet more delays often ensued before the approved funds were made available. Widely publicized data breaches only added to parents’ uncertainty about whether to participate.

Addressing these challenges has become even more critical as more and more states adopt new ESA programs. In the past two years alone, six states — Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, West Virginia, and Utah — have enacted new or expanded existing ESA programs to make eligibility universal for all K-12 students, and several others have ESAs that serve low-income and special-needs students. These programs empower millions of families with new choices in education, but implementation is key to their success.

“This is a critical moment for the parental choice movement because ESA programs are very difficult to implement effectively,” Garnett explained. “The only way that they can work is when states partner with private organizations like Odyssey to provide a platform that links parents and providers and facilitates financial transactions between them.”

Connor’s experience with microschools helped him see that need up close and personal. States needed a better way to administer their ESA and microgrant programs transparently, approve purchases quickly, and track all financial transactions. Parents needed a way to learn whether they qualified for ESA funds (and for how much), and they needed to be able to access those funds quickly and safely to pay their students’ tuition bills on time.

“Technology is at the heart of what we offer at Odyssey,” Connor said, explaining that transaction tracking, payment capabilities, and identity verification are at the company’s core. But to ensure this technology would be user friendly, he packaged it with significant wrap-around services, including bilingual customer support by phone, chat, and email, as well as training for parents and schools’ customer support. Prior to launch, Odyssey conducted 17 training sessions for over 180 schools and 2,000 interested parents, and did substantial load testing to ensure the service could handle tens of thousands of applications per hour.

All that careful groundwork paid off in Iowa when parents found that, thanks to Odyssey, they could learn their ESA eligibility in less than 1 second after submitting their application. In Iowa, Odyssey flawlessly processed more than 29,000 applications in its first month of operation.

John Schoenig, ACE’s senior director of teacher formation and education policy, worked with Connor when he was a consultant there.

“Odyssey truly has the potential to be at the vanguard of the family choice movement,” said Schoenig, who graduated from Notre Dame Law School in 2010. “If the past 30 years have taught us anything, it’s that the hardest and most important work begins the moment that a good piece of policy is enacted. An enterprise like Odyssey can take policy implementation to an entirely new level.”

One of Odyssey’s financial backers is Alex Agus, an investor at Avid Ventures. He initially learned about Odyssey after hearing Connor speak on a podcast about his vision for the company.

“We were immediately struck by Joe’s background in teaching, education law, and scaling microschools, which we believe gives him a unique perspective to build a company that is helping to reshape education in America,” Agus said.

Agus too sees a bright future for Odyssey. “A significant number of states are in legislative processes to launch ESA programs, and every state with an ESA program will require a facilitator like Odyssey to help administrate it.”

Indeed, Agus believes that as more state governments see Odyssey delivering transparent and efficient program administration for them, the company will have the opportunity to expand into facilitating many other forms of government programs beyond education accounts and become “a holistic, trusted direct-to-constituent program enabler.”

Meanwhile, Garnett said, “It is not an exaggeration to say that the future success of parental choice in the United States is in the hands of Joe and other entrepreneurs like him. We should be incredibly proud of what he has built. He truly is a different kind of lawyer.”