The nation's business leaders were given bad news Friday about the state of public education in the United States.

Only 15 to 20 percent of students are getting a useful education, and thousands of children in big cities are growing up in "disastrous" educational circumstances, according to reports presented to corporate chief executives at the fall meeting of the Business Council.

Both presidential candidates were criticized for failure to make educational reform a major issue in the 1988 election campaign.

"They have no coherent program," said Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the proposals by Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis have been so thin that he has trouble discussing them in public.

Shanker said his union is supporting Dukakis because Bush, like President Reagan, has backed proposals to divert public money to private schools.

Boyer, who served as U.S. commissioner of education in the Carter administration, said big-city education is "disastrous," partly because the only students who get any attention are either very good or very bad.