THE NEW DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION has something of the air of a school building at midsummer these days. No one's quite sure of room assignments; desks have been ordered, but haven't arrived; plans are afoot, but not written down yet; some of last year's homework problems are still left on the blackboard.

But on May 7, ready or not, the new department will be officially open for business with all the hoopla that kind of thing usually entails. A "Salute to Learning Day" at the White House to unfurl the new department's flag, festivals at schools around the country and a special stamp honoring education issued by the U.S. Postal Service, all will launch the 13th cabinet department -- with its 152 programs, $14.2 billion budget and 17,000 employes.

Ever since Jimmy Carter first proposed the new department during his campaign for president, there has been debate about whether it would make any difference in the way education is conducted in this country. Carter has said that the new department "will profoundly transform the quality of education in our nation." Others have not been so confident, but, as a spokesperson for the American Federation of Teachers (which opposed formation of the new department) put it recently, "We're willing to wait and see." At the new department's helm will be Shirley Mount Hufstedler, who was, until she accepted President Carter's offer of a cabinet post, a judge for the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals and the country's senior woman judge. At 54, Hufstedler comes to the education business from a long and distinguished career in the law. Some of critics say her lack of experience with educational issues will make her ineffective, while her supporters cite her fresh outlook, her proven organizational abilities, and her lack of ties and obligations to the many importunate education groups which will be knocking at her door.

In the meantime while that debate continues to simmer, the department, whose various offices are scattered at 11 different locations across Washington, (a recent memo took 3 days to make its appointed rounds), is administering essentially the same programs that used to fall under the jurisdiction of the Office of Education within HEW. There's the familiar array of asistant secretaries for this and that branch of education -- special, elementary, vocational, secondary and so on. Plus the department is absorbing other school-related programs such as overseas dependents schools and migrant education programs which were formerly administered by other departments. But in at least one area, a hint of change seems to be on its way. Parents, particularly of elementary and secondary school children, are being given more active recognition. They are even being courted.

"Education is a public responsibility that cannot be left only to the schools. The cornerstone of effective public education is community involvement and, in particular, the involvement of parents with school children in the policies and practices of our schools," said Hufstedler in a recent interview. "The department recognizes that individual involvement of parents is also an important goal. We of course want to work with parents in order to help them teach their children, because parents, when they know how to supplement their children's learning at home, reinforce the work of the schools very dramatically."

In May a pamphlet entitled Working with Schools: A Parent's Handbook will be available (from the Division of Education for the Disadvantaged, 400 Maryland Ave. SE, Washington D.C. 20202). Although prepared for a specific group, the pamphlet has useful information for any parent. The guide outlines methods for parents to work for the improvement of their children's educational environment and offers some homespun advice on how to help children be better students. The guide discusses children's rights, parents' rights, educational philosophies, what to look for on a school visit, how to approach a parent-teacher conference, and how to work within the system to support or change a school. Appendices outline at-home activities to reinforce basic skills.

For parents eager to know more about the various projects funded by the department and who is in charge of them, there is the 1980 guide to Department of Education programs, prepared by American Education, the department's magazine (available by writing for the OE Guide-80, Washington D.C. 20202). Listed are contact people for each program and the eligibility requirements for local education organizations that wish to apply for them.

Of course, the department hasn't just discovered parents. For years parent involvement in local schools has been specified in legislation like Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Under Title I, the country's largest federally funded education project, money is used to supplement education programs designed to help poor children achieve more in school. In 1978-79 nearly 5 million students, in 90 percent of the country's school districts took part in Title I programs.

Under Title I, Parent Advisory Councils (PACs) must be set up at both the district and the individual school level, and must follow established procedures to advise the schools about planning, running and evaluating Title I programs.

In 1970, Public Law 91-230 required local school boards to involve parents and other community members in Title I programs, thus enforcing the federal education establishment's conviction that parental presence has a beneficial effect on children's academic achievement.

Nationwide, there are 250,000 parents involved in PACs. In many communities they act as office workers or teachers' aides in public schools. Others volunteer in the classroom, correct papers, and help out with lunch and playground duties. Their help lowers the student-teacher ratio, frees teachers for better planning, and, perhaps most importantly, demonstrates to kids that their parents care about what happens to them in school, educators say.

PACs formalize parental involvement, and heighten its impact, because the councils have advisory and decision-making power built in. In some school districts, like Phoenix, Arizona, for instance, PACs have hiring and firing power over special Title I employes. They must be listened to in all aspects of the administration of Title I programs, from planning and operation to evaluation. Federal regulations do not detail the extent of such involvement specifically, and the design of PAC training programs is left up to the local administrators. But federal guidelines do recommend that PACs help to specify the needs of the particular population of children being served by the programs.

"As a parent myself I think it's so important to be part of your child's educational program. PACs provide a way for parents' input to be taken seriously," said Treopia Washington, coordinator of PAC training workshops in Baltimore county where nearly half the 108 public elementary schools and 17 private schools are served by Title I programs.

The Baltimore county workshops are held up as national models by the Department of Education and recently county PACs convinced the department that Title I funds should be increased to cover fourth grade as well as kindergarten through third grade.

"Parents' insistence got us that money," Washington says.

As Jeanne Park, a department spokeswoman, put it, "We're interested in plugging into 'Parent Power.'"

Most of the department's parent oriented programs, including PACs and the parent pamphlet, fall within the purview of the division of elementary and secondary education headed by Dr. Thomas Minter. With an appropriation of $4.8 billion or nearly 33 percent of the department's budgetary pie, Minter's division funds about 60 programs, in addition to Title I, which run the gamut from alcohol and drug abuse prevention through art education and programs for gifted and talented children, to assistance for Indochinese refugees. Also there are several programs authorized by the Civil Rights Act or the Emergency School Aid Act which provide desegregation assistance.

Minter is a former superintendent in schools in Wilmington Delaware who became deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education at HEW and is now the designated undersecretary for that same area under Hufstedler. He has been described by his boss as a man with "extensive knowledge of urban issues and cities in distress . . . an effective spokesman in administering today's complex problems in education."

Minter's office of elementary and secondary education perceives its role as one of partnership with state, local and nonpublic school officials in locating, as Minter has said, "where the federal dollar can do the most good." It's main thrust is to give special attention to the needs of disadvantaged children, with programs administered -- and often designed -- at the local level.

As the department's 17,000 employes wait for the dust of reorganization to settle, they joke about never being sure "where you'll be sitting tomorrow." (There is still no plan to consolidate the department's offices at one location). Scattered, battered, but never beaten, they're convinced that what matters is the physical presence of Shirley Hufstedler, sitting at the cabinet meetings, a voice for education. That's where the hope is. As director of the division of education for the disadvantaged, Dr. Richard Fairley, says, "Now that we're going to be more visible, and have the President's ear, we should be able to act more effectively."