If the Department of Education were to vanish, the federal government would still have a substantial stake in funding education. Half again as much money as the department spends is tucked into at least a dozen different pockets of Uncle Sam's business suit.
The department's operating budget for fiscal 1983 is $15.7 billion; the proposed figures for fiscal 1984, to be released tomorrow (Jan. 29), are expected to remain in the same range.
Overall, the federal government's portion of tax revenues spent on education does not exceed 10 percent. In the United States, state and local authorities exert most control over education. This, of course, contrasts sharply with other Western nations, where a central ministry of education dominates or completely determines the expenditures for education.
Mr. Reagan announced during his campaign that he wanted to abolish the Department of Education. But through a series of ''continuing resolutions,'' Congress has reprieved it. Meanwhile, the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government wield their influence upon education in myriad and sometimes conflicting ways, some of which are not readily apparent to the citizens who must ultimately decide exactly how much federal impact upon education they want and want to pay for.
The Supreme Court continues to be asked to decide the legitimacy of laws affecting schools, colleges, and universities.
The 1954 landmark desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, made the federal government the guarantor of equal access to good schools for all American children. But from the start, congressional and federal court regulations in behalf of civil rights, like subsequent actions in behalf of the handicapped, the language-handicapped, women, and even proposed help to families paying private school tuition, have come under attack both from those who feel the federal government interferes too much and from those who claim it should do more.
Ironically, Federal Office Building No. 6, just south of the Smithsonian complex, houses two tenants: the headquarters of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the dwindling Department of Education. But today many critics feel that the federal government, through its emphasis on equal access to education, has ignored needed initiatives for maintaining the rigor of the curriculum, particularly in the areas of science and technology.
''The interest in science education has ebbed and flowed since Sputnik,'' says Dr. Terence L. Porter, head of the fellowship section of the Office of Science Engineering Personnel and Education at the National Science Foundation (NSF), ''but mostly ebbed.''
Right now, however,'' he said. ''the National Science Foundation is planning how to spend $15 million that Congress has appropriated to improve the preparation of math and science teachers. All signs - test scores, competition for teachers, shortage of engineering faculties, and low science requirements by high schools - point to the need for doing something about this problem.''
The NSF is still working out the details, but, ''It will be a competitive grants program favoring collaborative projects which demonstrate support at the community level,'' Dr. Porter indicated. ''We're looking for cooperation between school systems, universities, and the private sector.''
''The federal government can play a leadership role, but the financial role belongs to everybody,'' he insisted.
Asked how reducing the Department of Education would affect the National Science Foundation, Dr. Porter replied, ''In the short run it wouldn't affect us much. But if there is a need for certain things, roles and clienteles shift until the needs get met. In that sense it would affect us.''
At present (fiscal 1983), the foundation is also responsible for $15 million for graduate fellowships.
Mary Kohlerman, adviser to the Commission on Pre-College Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology, says the commission is currently defining the roles appropriate to the federal government, state and local governments, business, foundations, museums, and the news media in science education.
It is also promoting the findings from a conference it called last year on what math and science should be taught at all levels of kindergarten through 12 th grade, what the implications of learning research are for science and math teaching, and what use of technology is being made in schools.
The total federal funding of colleges and universities in fiscal 1981 (the last year for which actual figures are available) amounted to $7.7 billion. Slightly more than half of this represented money for research and development.
''This money was funneled through a lot of different departments,'' said William Stewart, of Science Resources Studies at the NSF. ''The Department of Defense, National Science Foundation, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Interior, Education, Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency had major amounts; AID [Agency for International Development] had a little.''
Where else do federal dollars for education go?
Probably few civilians imagine the extent of education programs provided by the Navy for its personnel and their dependents ashore and afloat.
Adm. James A. Sagerholm, chief of naval education and training, oversees from Pensacola, Fla., a ''school system'' that spans the globe and ranges from primary classrooms for Navy children to the Naval Academy for officer candidates at Annapolis to the Naval Post Graduate School at Monterey, Calif. Similarly, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Army have large educational networks which they fund and supervise.
The Education and Training Branch of the Federal Judicial Center in Washington, D.C., offers continuing education for court employees. Its programs are not mandatory, but are offered to all and range from orientation seminars for a newly appointed district judge to a clerk wanting to advance in his career. Its 1983 budget is $2 million.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Veterans Administration, International Communication Agency, Peace Corps, Smithsonian Institution, Metric Board, Botanic Garden, and UNESCO (of which the United States is a member and financial contributor) are all involved with education and education services which have a price tag.
The Graduate School of the United States Department of Agriculture does not receive any appropriated money, either from the Agriculture Department or from Congress. But every year thousands of government employees study in its classes. It was originally created in 1921 by USDA people for USDA people, but it rapidly evolved into a governmentwide learning facility. Most who attend or teach do so on their own time and at their own expense.
Because almost every cabinet-level department has an education component, a good deal of interdepartmental coordination is required simply to avoid duplication of programs and expenditures. It was this necessity, plus the desire of professional educators and their unions to be represented at the cabinet level, which led to calls, finally heeded in 1980, for separating the Department of Education from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
When the Department of Education's proposed fiscal 1984 budget is disclosed tomorrow, it will likely reflect Secretary Terrel H. Bell's mandate to reduce the status of the cabinet-level department to that of a Foundation for Educational Assistance.
Understandably, morale is not particularly high among the department's 5,637 career employees. Even so, it has already begun consolidating various programs and child welfare services, restricting student aid to those most in need, giving states block grants which they can use at their discretion rather than categorical grants for specific programs, and separating the Job Corps from its domain.
When the United States Department of Education was first separated from Health, Education, and Welfare, it employed 7,500 government employees and 36 political appointees. Today Mr. Bell, the secretary, has an undersecretary, two deputy undersecretaries, six assistant secretaries, a general counsel, and the director of the Office of Bilingual Education.
This administrative team advises the secretary, who in turn advises the President, on education plans, policies, and programs.
The secretary is also responsible for four federally aided corporations: the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Ky.; Gallaudet College for the Deaf in Washington, D.C.; Howard University, Washington, originally chartered for the training of black students but now admitting all students; and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y.
Even though ''Ed'' is small as federal departments go, many people feel that the United States Constitution left control over education to the states and that federal intervention or regulations have been wrong all along.