Thinking of our children and our families.

Living here in Jefferson City, I’m luckier than most other legislators. I get to go home every night, and I get to see my family regularly. That’s not true for very many senators and representatives. They make a sacrifice to be here. The time they spend in Jeff City is time they’re not spending with their spouses, children, or grandchildren.

Before I was a legislator, I used to wonder exactly why they did it. It’s not for the pay. I think many legislators actually lose money being a member of the House or Senate compared to their regular jobs. Some people say it’s ego or personal ambition. In some cases that may be true. But the vast majority of people I’ve served with over the last 10 years are here for the same reason — they want to make Missouri a better place for the next generation.

That’s something I consider more and more as I get older. I’m a grandpa now, many times over. In fact, we just had our newest grandbaby this last month — her name is Alma Louise. It makes me think about her future, and the future for everyone’s kids and grandkids.

The world has changed since I was that little. Much of what we take for granted now was once only dreamed about in science fiction. We have online meetings instead of conference calls. We’re putting rovers on Mars. Ten-year-old kids know more about computers than I probably ever will. Things that were once only imagined in movies or TV shows are now an everyday reality.

While all that change creates exciting new opportunities, it also creates new challenges. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic gave us unexpected hurdles to overcome. The legislature has had to take a step back and reexamine how the state operates and figure out what changes we need to make going forward.

One of the biggest things we’ve struggled with this year is public education. Frankly, education is always a difficult topic in the Capitol, but given the reality we found ourselves in due to COVID-19, we’ve had to take an even closer look at the fundamental realities of our education system. These issues are complex, and it’s hard to come to a consensus on what to do.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think one solution is right for every child. Kids are individuals, and they all learn differently.”

Mike Bernskoetter 

Average teacher salaries in Missouri, like the salaries of all Missouri state employees, are low. Close to the lowest in the nation, in fact. It’s hard to justify that. Some schools are prospering and their students are excelling, while other schools are consistently underperforming. We’ve tried increasing funding, giving them more resources, and they’re not able to meet the standards of success for their students. Other schools are struggling with ensuring that students with special needs are being properly educated. Every kid is different, and sometimes a regular classroom or curriculum simply doesn’t work for a particular student.

None of these issues are new. None of these issues are simple. What is new, though, is the prevalence of online learning. COVID-19 caused a massive shift in the way classroom instruction happened in our state. Suddenly, many kids were having class online, talking to their teachers and fellow students through a computer screen. Homework and exams were completed through an online program. Schools had to scramble to reach kids who didn’t have internet access.

These are the realities we’re facing now. Some people want to keep schools online. Some, fearful of what may happen to these kids during long-term remote learning, want to go back to full-time classrooms. Charter schools have been explored as an answer to failing school districts. Scholarships and programs to help special needs students have been discussed. The Missouri Senate and the House of Representatives have both debated education bills at length this year.

At the end of the day, I don’t think one solution is right for every child. Kids are individuals, and they all learn differently. I think that’s the guiding principle we have to keep in mind when making reforms to our education system. No one system is going to meet the needs of all children, so we have to build a framework that ensures we meet the needs of every child individually.

I think about my kids and grandkids when I’m considering all these things. Am I doing what’s best for them? Will these be the right decisions for their kids and grandkids? It’s not easy, and the process will probably still be going on long after I’m gone. But while I’m in the office, I have to do what’s best for my family and for all the families in Missouri. 

Mike Bernskoetter