Signs of trouble are arising for President Barack Obama’s plan to put education overhaul at the forefront of his agenda as he adjusts to the new reality of a divided government.
Giving students and teachers more flexibility is an idea with bipartisan support. Yet the debate about the overdue renewal of the nation’s chief education law, known as No Child Left Behind, is complicated by political pressures from the coming 2012 presidential campaign and disputes over timing, money and scope of the update.
While education might offer the best chance for the White House to work with newly empowered Republicans, any consensus could fade in the pitiless political crosscurrents, leaving the debate for another day, perhaps even another presidency.
If so, parents, teachers, and students would labor under a burdensome set of testing guidelines and other rules that many say are lowering standards.
It’s that scenario that the president and his administration intend to invoke as a way to rally public support and spur lawmakers and 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 State of the Union address on Jan. 25 will reflect his commitment to education.
Obama has spoken about the effect on the U.S. economy and competitiveness from lagging student test scores. Lawmakers and advocates will watch to see whether he keeps the issue in the spotlight in the months ahead.
“I don’t think there’s any substitute but for him to be out front,” said Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee.
Some Republicans, wary of another giant bill like health care, would prefer a series of small measures to the broad rewrite of No Child Left Behind favored by the administration.
Democrats and many outside advocates say Congress must enact an overhaul this year, before the 2012 campaign. For some in the GOP, getting it right is more important than getting it fast, and they refuse to spend any new money to do it.