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. "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.
"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 a House 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. Since then, many lawmakers have concluded that the law failed to meet its overall objectives of raising student achievement. Instead, they say, it has meant relying too much on test results and arbitrary measurements that don't help students learn.
The Obama administration produced a framework for a new law last year. It would ease many testing requirements, put a new focus on teacher performance and the lowest-performing schools, and replace proficiency requirements with loftier goals of boosting college graduation rates.
Duncan has worked with lawmakers of both parties over the past two years to lay the groundwork for a rewrite. 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 Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House committee.
Obama focused on health care at the start of his presidency, when Democrats controlled Congress. Now Republicans control the House and are more powerful in the Senate. It's not clear that an education overhaul ranks high on their list of priorities, even if committee leaders support it.
The "Pledge to America," which the House GOP released before taking power in the November elections, never mentions education. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Boehner's focus is on "addressing the top priorities of the American people _ creating jobs and cutting spending."
Administration officials will try to make the case that education is crucial for the economy and jobs _ an argument Obama tried to use with health care, with limited success. "This isn't a distraction from the economy. This is important for the economy," said White House domestic policy adviser Melody Barnes.