Florida struggles with a middling reputation when it comes to educational outcomes. Its eighth-grade math and reading scores are slightly below average, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The state’s graduation rate—with almost 78 percent of students graduating from high school—also falls below the national average of 82 percent. Governor Rick Scott and the state legislature have recently sought to improve the state’s standings with new policy measures, including major increases in state funding and expansions of school choice across the state.
But more money for schools and more options for students are not likely to lift the state into the top tier of educational outcomes. The state’s public schools are already rated as doing an above-average job in educating the kids who pass through their doors, as a recent Urban Institute report noted. The problem, it would seem, is that too many young Floridians are coming to school not adequately prepared to learn. Florida’s middling educational performance, in other words, seems to have more to do with what’s happening at home than what is happening in its schools.
In fact, the Institute for Family Studies’ new report, Strong Families, Successful Schools, provides evidence that families play an important role in the performance and character of schools in counties across Florida. We found that the share of married-parent families in a county is one of the strongest predictors of high school graduation rates for Florida counties; indeed, it’s a more powerful predictor than family income, race, or ethnicity. Across the state’s counties, graduation rates are 4 percentage-points higher for every 10 percentage-point rise in married-couple families.
We also found that counties that have strong and stable families tend to enjoy safer schools. In our research, the strongest predictor of school suspension rates in counties across the state was the share of married parents in a county. County trends in family structure proved to be more important than county trends in parental education, family income, race, and ethnicity. The suspension rate was lower by 3.5 points for every 10 percentage points that the proportion of married-couple families in a county was higher.