Doing Their Homework?

Like eager students, Al Gore and George W. can't stop telling voters how much they care about education. But people on education's frontlines say the two candidates still haven't learned the real lesson of America's classrooms, that there are no easy answers.

CBS News Correspondent Bill Whitaker reports that because voters have identified education as their top concern, the candidates have made it their big issue - bigger even than the economy, stupid, according to the Texas governor.

"The economy matters not if a nation cannot educate its children," Bush said recently.

Bush's plan calls for all students to read by third grade. It would give failing schools deadlines for improvement, and allow parents of students at schools that continue to fail to withdraw their share of federal funds and use it to pay for private schooling.

Gore proposes, on the other hand, things like universal pre-school, more teachers and smaller classes.

But off the campaign trail and in the classroom, the issues get more complicated, perhaps.

Students at Birmingham High in Los Angeles, for example, know that some of their fellow students - teen-agers - cannot read.

Their Own Words
Click on these links to learn more about what the presidential candidates propose for America's schools:
  • Democrat Al Gore's "Education Agenda."
  • Republican nominee George W. Bush's "Principles of Reform."
  • Green Party standard bearer Ralph Nader on children's issues and education.
  • Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan's views in his announcement speech.
  • Natural Law Party nominee - and Reform Party candidate—John Hagelin's ideas.
  • Libertarian Hrry Browne's education platform.
  • But they advance from grade to grade, said Mshak Ghazarian, because, "They'll pass 'em anyway just to get 'em out of their hair, almost, it seems."

    In many ways, Birmingham is typical of schools across the city and the nation. It is ethnically and socially diverse and quite overcrowded.

    "In my chemistry class there are students that don't have seats, that have to stand up against the wall," said Michal Goldvaser.

    In classrooms like that, it's "first come, first serve," said Abby Herrera.

    Indeed, as a student named Brittany observed, "They're just cramming people into as many places as we can."

    The problem isn't just a shortage of desks and a surplus of bodies, of course. The problem at schools like Birmingham is also that there is just not enough money.

    "I had a class once where I got a book, a U.S. history book, and it didn't even have a cover on it," said Goldvaser. "And there was graffiti on half the pages."

    The school's administration says it's doing the best they can with limited resources and a student population that includes many kids from poor backgrounds and broken homes—two obstacles many private schools don't have to overcome.

    "We take them from where they are and move them well ahead, every student," said Marsha Rybin, an assistant principal. "That's not a second-rate education, that's first-rate."

    Still, with 3,300 students speaking 17 different languages, teachers at Birmingham say the political rhetoric in this year's campaign flunks the reality test.

    After years of promises to fix America's schools, they say the have learned one lesson: to believe what politicians say about education only when they see it.

    "We can set standards until we're blue in the face and keep rewriting pieces of paper, but until something actually, physically happens on campus, nothing's going to change," said Cary Goodman, a teacher.

    Third party candidates hold a rage of views on what to do about education.

    Reform Party hopeful Pat Buchanan says that " primary and secondary education should be returned to the states."

    His opponent for the Reform Party nod, John Hagelin, who is also the Natural Law Party nominee, advocates implementing apprenticeship programs and voucher systems.

    Libertarian Harry Browne argues, "There is no constitutional authority for the federal government to be involved in education in any way whatsoever," while the Green Party's Ralph Nader supports increasing fuding to repair schools and increase teacher pay, as well as strengthening civics education.