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‘School Choice’ Offers Opportunity for Gov Tech Platforms

As more states approve school choice programs — commonly through education savings accounts — there is demand for platforms that can handle the administrative tasks. Odyssey’s experience in Iowa illustrates the situation.

A school hallway lined with blue and yellow lockers.
Shutterstock/David J. Mitchell
A new digital ID program in Iowa is helping to reduce the hassle of paying for private grade, middle- and high-school education — an effort that could foreshadow fresh opportunities for government technology.

In early 2023 Iowa adopted its Students First Act, which sets up education savings accounts, or ESAs, via which parents can pay for tuition and other expenses for accredited nonpublic schools in the state.

The program reflects a goal dear to many conservatives: Allowing parents to use vouchers to pay for private school tuition. Iowa is one of the five states that this year have enacted such a program, and one of 13 that now have it, according to Ballotpedia.

At least one survey from earlier this year indicates that support for such programs is strong, with such findings taken as a positive signal by a company such as Odyssey, which sells a platform designed to help administer those ESAs.

Such programs can come with a bureaucratic application process involving identity and eligibility verification among other administrative requirements and tasks, and that’s where gov tech comes in.

Odyssey’s platform, which can be customized by state, “uses APIs to connect to relevant databases and confirm eligibility almost instantly,” according to a statement from the New York-based company.

In the case of Iowa, Odyssey has integrated with the state Department of Revenue’s database, Joseph Connor, the firm’s founder, told Government Technology.

“Traditionally, it’s a very slow process that can take four to eight weeks,” he said. “We can confirm in milliseconds.”

Using the Odyssey platform, Iowa has processed more than 29,000 ESA applications so far, with 19,000 winning approval, according to the company.

States have varying rules for eligibility, among which concern family income or specific student needs. Required documentation can include tax returns.

On top of that are residency requirements, proved via such methods as driver’s licenses, leases, voter registrations and bank accounts. Rules also command how ESA money is used — the new law in Iowa sets out a three-year plan during which eligibility gradually expands to all K-12 students regardless of income.

Faster eligibility and ID verification will lead to quicker disbursement of funds and more support for such programs, at least in Connor’s view. As well, digital verifications could also help prevent fraud, echoing a thesis long at work in banking and e-commerce.

Connor said biometric identification — such as facial recognition — can be part of the process, via participants providing an image of their government-issued ID.

“One of the biggest blockers we have seen is access,” he said. “It can be slow and arduous — you don’t hear back for weeks.”

Amy Sinclair, a Republican who serves as president of the Iowa state Senate, and a prime backer of the new Student First Act, said she was attracted to the turnkey nature of the Odyssey platform.

“The state of Iowa doesn’t need to re-create a whole wheel that’s already out there,” she told Government Technology.

The Odyssey involvement in ESAs involves more than digital ID and eligibility confirmation. The company also said it is rolling out what it called a “SKU-level marketplace” through which parents taking part in such programs can buy eligible education-related items.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.