WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is putting education overhaul at the forefront of his agenda as he prepares for his State of the Union address and adjusts to the new reality of a divided government. But trouble signs are already emerging.
Despite a bipartisan consensus in favor of more flexibility for students and teachers, political pressures from the coming 2012 presidential campaign and disputes over timing, money and scope loom over a debate affecting millions — the overdue renewal of the nation's governing education law, known as No Child Left Behind.
For all the talk in Washington that education might offer the best chance for the White House to work with Republicans, any consensus could swiftly evaporate in the capital's pitiless political crosscurrents, leaving the debate for another day, perhaps even another presidency.
American parents, teachers and students would be left laboring under a burdensome set of testing guidelines and other rules that many agree are pushing standards lower instead of bringing them up. And frightening statistics would continue to pile up about how American students are being outpaced by their foreign counterparts in key areas like math and science.
It's that specter that Obama and members of his administration intend to use to try to marshal public support and spur balky lawmakers and quarreling interest groups into action against long odds.
"No one I'm talking to is defending the status quo," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview. "Everyone I talk to really shares my sense of urgency that we have to do better for our children. We're fighting for our country here."
Duncan said Obama's commitment to education reform will be reflected in his State of the Union address on Jan. 25. Obama has already spoken of the dangers to the U.S. economy and future competitiveness from lagging student test scores, and lawmakers and advocates will be watching closely to see whether he keeps the issue in the spotlight in the months ahead. They say aggressive advocacy from the president is key.
"I don't think there's any substitute but for him to be out front," said Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Some in the GOP, wary of another giant bill like health care, would prefer a series of small measures to the sweeping rewrite of No Child Left Behind favored by the administration. Democrats and many outside advocates say Congress must enact any major education overhaul this year, before the 2012 campaign swings into gear. But some Republicans say getting it right is more important than getting it fast, and they refuse to spend any new money to do it.
"There's room to make cuts, and I think pretty substantial cuts, that would enable us to use some of those savings on things we think work," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California conservative who's the new chairman of an Education and Workforce subcommittee. "I like the piecemeal approach. ... If you do it in bite-size pieces, you can tell what needs to be tweaked as you go."
No Child Left Behind would not have passed without President George W. Bush's strong advocacy in the first year of his administration. In the years since, many Democrats and Republicans have concluded that the law failed to meet its overall objectives of raising student achievement, instead resulting in an over-reliance on test results and arbitrary measurements that don't help students learn. Yet no major rewrite of the law has happened since.
The Obama administration produced a framework for a new law last year that would soften many of No Child Left Behind's onerous testing requirements, put a new focus on teacher performance and the lowest-performing schools, and replace unwieldy proficiency requirements with loftier goals of boosting college graduation rates.
The document generated predictable controversy, but Duncan has worked painstakingly with lawmakers of both parties over the past two years to lay the groundwork for a reform bill. Republican and Democratic leaders of the education committees in the House and Senate say they want to move forward. "Everyone agrees this law needs reform," said Education and Workforce Chairman John Kline, R-Minn.
Obama focused on health care at the start of his administration, when Democrats controlled Congress. Now, after the November elections, Republicans control the House and are more powerful in the Senate and have the political capital to burn. It's not clear they'll be spending it on improving education, even if their committee leaders support it.
The "Pledge to America" the House GOP unveiled before taking power in the November elections never mentions the education. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for new House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that Boehner's focus is on "addressing the top priorities of the American people — creating jobs and cutting spending.