Married-parent families predict graduation rates: Strengthen one, improve the other

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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. Gov. Rick Scott and the state Legislature recently have 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, our new study, “Strong Families, Successful Schools,” by the Institute for Family Studies, 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.

Our research is particularly timely because it compliments new research from MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues. Their study of more than 1 million Florida children indicates that poor boys, more than poor girls, are being hit particularly hard by single parenthood. After comparing brothers and sisters from father-absent homes, Autor and his colleagues concluded that the “boy-girl gap in suspensions is far smaller in families where children are born to married parents” and that the gender gap in high-school graduation is smaller for children whose parents are married. Autor told The New York Times: “Boys particularly seem to benefit more from being in a married household or committed household — with the time, attention and income that brings.” Unfortunately, all too many boys — as well as girls — across Florida are not getting the time, attention and income typically furnished by a two-parent family. Currently, Florida ranks 37th in the share of its children being raised in married-parent families, with only 66 percent of Florida children living in married-parent homes.

Given the connections between strong families and successful schools in the Sunshine State, policymakers, civic leaders and everyday Floridians should consider three steps:

•Scott and state lawmakers should seek to eliminate marriage penalties in programs serving lower-income families, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. They should also make sure that state programs treat married families with the same consideration given to single-parent families.

•Because most young Floridians will not graduate from college, the governor and state lawmakers should also strengthen vocational training in high schools and community colleges across the state. High-quality voc-ed programs have been linked to better income and higher marriage rates among young men from low-income families.

•Civic, religious and business leaders should launch a privately funded civic campaign spotlighting what Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the “success sequence,” where young adults are encouraged to pursue education, work, marriage and parenthood — in that order. Such a statewide campaign could mimic the nation’s successful initiative to prevent teen pregnancy, which helped drive the teen pregnancy rate in America down by more than 50 percent since 1990.

Steps like these could go a long way toward renewing the fortunes of families across the Sunshine State. Stronger families, our research suggests, would also provide an important boost to Florida’s middling educational fortunes.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist, is director of the National Marriage Project at theUniversity of Virginia and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. Nicholas Zill, a psychologist, co-founded Child Trends and recently retired as vice president of Westat.