Home-school to Harvard

A Libertarian’s view on how to save education—in your own home

America is in shambles from sea to shining sea. National unemployment hovers near 10 percent. The real estate market is scorched-earth terrain. The stock market is crumbling—along with our retirement accounts. Retail sales are vanishing. Consumer confidence is plummeting. And our U.S. credit rating has been downgraded for the first time in history.

But all of that is child’s play compared to our failing education system. The decline of our public school system is a national embarrassment. And Las Vegas is in even worse shape than the rest of the country. The graduation rate in the Clark County School District was less than 45 percent in 2008, according to Education Week magazine. Do the words fraud and disgrace come to mind?

Yet through all this gloom, there is a ray of hope. Home-schooling works. I’ll share my personal story, with the hope and belief that others can also benefit from taking charge of their children’s education.

• • •

I am a Henderson-based small-business man; my wife is a homemaker and a devoted Christian. From the start, we wanted to help our daughter, Dakota, to dream big. We believe that low expectations are poison to American kids—so almost from Dakota’s birth, we set her sights on Harvard or Stanford. Does that make us “Tiger parents” or simply parents who want the best for our child?

In any case, 18 years later Dakota had perfect SAT scores of 800 in reading and writing. She was accepted by many of this nation’s finest universities—including Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Columbia, Penn and Brown. She actually had the confidence to turn down an offer from the Yale fencing coach before she had gotten any of her other acceptances. The kid turned down Yale!

Today she is a sophomore at Harvard University. She finished the last semester of her freshman year with straight A’s while earning second-team All-Ivy League honors in fencing.

So how did it happen? What was in the water at the Root household?

The keys for us was taking action and taking charge. Dakota’s story is a testament to the power of the individual. When it comes to educating our children, government is clearly “too big to succeed.” Our advice: Be proactive. Become the CEO of your child’s education. Take responsibility for your child’s future. Stop relying on government.

The principles we taught were as important as the subjects: We taught Dakota that to succeed, she would have to out-work, out-hustle, out-sacrifice and out-smart every other student. There are no shortcuts in education, business or life. “Overnight success” often requires 20 years of hard work. We taught her to fight passionately for her dreams, to relish competition and to embrace winning. And that it all starts by building your life around detailed and specific goals. We taught her to take risks, to be disciplined and never to accept anything less than her definition of success. The result? The first classroom of Dakota’s life was in the hallowed halls of Harvard.

Of course, there were sacrifices. Much of your future success is determined by the work ethic you build as a child and develop in high school. While many other kids were busy partying, experimenting, dating, gossiping, shopping at malls, watching TV and practicing for their driver’s licenses, Dakota was studying for SAT exams, taking piano lessons, Spanish and French lessons, and working tirelessly to become an elite fencer. She was debating her dad about politics and current events at the dinner table. She was devouring books on science, math, history, literature, politics and business.

When the moment of opportunity called, she took advantage. When Dakota was 16, I asked her to give my nomination speech as a Libertarian candidate for president of the United States on C-Span. Dakota delivered the first speech of her life like a pro in front of 1,000 delegates and media and a national TV audience. After all those years of hard work, dedication, discipline and sacrifice, she had achieved her “overnight success.” Two years later, Harvard was just the icing on the cake.

• • •

There is no single answer for solving the public education crisis. Our choice of home-schooling melded parental education with tutoring by handpicked retired teachers and college professors, combined with a personally selected curriculum. That’s called parental freedom. By the way, I respect and applaud teachers. I think most of them work hard, sacrifice and care for their students. Dakota owes her home-school success to several retired teachers who are like members of our family. Those same retired teachers are now teaching a new generation of my children—ages 3, 7 and 11.

But teachers unions and education bureaucrats are a far different story. Education in this country has deteriorated for decades under their leadership. Home-schooling worked for our family because we took the best of education—dedicated parents and professional educators—and eliminated the worst: No unions or government bureaucrats were involved.

In the end, the power to decide how to best educate children belongs with the parents, not teachers unions or government. School choice can force public schools to improve. So can reducing the power of unions so that it’s possible to fire underperforming teachers and reward superior ones. And so can offering vouchers on the state level to give parents the power—and money—to choose education alternatives. Competition works.

A 2009 study by the Home School Legal Defense Association showed that home-schooled kids score 30-40 points higher on major standardized achievement tests than public school students. But Dakota’s story doesn’t just prove the power of home-schooling. It shows that the American Dream is alive, if only we’d stop depending on government to save us. It shows the promise of alternative education, parental freedom and school choice. It doesn’t take a village, or a state-licensed teacher, or a teachers union to educate a child—it takes two caring, motivated parents with the willingness and courage to take responsibility for their children’s future.