The Reagan administration is headed for another civil rights donnybrook, this time involving the use of federal money to promote educational equity for women. If the administration comes down on the right side of the question, it can promote broad civil rights coverage that will improve the educational opportunities of millions of women. If it comes down on the wrong side, it will roll back the progress of a decade.

The battleground is a Supreme Court case involving Title IX, the 1974 law that prohibits gender discrimination in "any educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance." In the past two years, two courts have interpreted that to mean the ban on discrimination applies only to specific programs in universities receiving federal aid, rather than to the entire institution if any part of it receives federal aid. The Justice Department decided not to appeal those cases and promptly drew up guidelines for the Education Department to reflect the change.

In a case involving Grove City College in Pennsylvania, however, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals took the other tack, deciding the entire institution must comply with Title IX if any part of it receives federal money. The Justice Department has to file a brief reflecting the Reagan administration's position on the question in July.

The argument for taking the university-wide approach is that money in universities in essentially pooled, with student aid money, for example, providing operating funds for the rest of the institution. If the pool is funding a program that discriminates against women, the taxpayers are in effect subsidizing that discrimination.

A number of Title IX supporters are concerned about what the Justice Department will do. Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.) is circulating a resolution reiterating congressional intent to make coverage of Title IX as broad as possible. As of yesterday, she had 135 co-sponsors, with Democrats predominating by a 3-to-1 margin. A letter urging Republican support for the resolution has been signed by a half-dozen prominent Republican women, including former first lady Betty Ford.

Last January, Clarence Pendleton, chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote President Reagan urging him to affirm the administration's commitment to equal opportunity in educational programs "directly or indirectly funded by federal funds." The letter warned that an effort to narrow the current broad guarantees under Title IX could be extended to narrowing those protecting minorities and the handicapped. The letter received no response.

Yesterday, the commission issued a statement drawing a clear parallel between the Grove City College case and the recent Supreme Court decision in the Bob Jones University case. "Congress enacted these protections to ensure that federal taxpayer dollars in no way support discrimination and to provide victims of discrimination effective relief," the commission found.

Commissioners Jill Ruckelshaus and Mary Frances Berry pointed out that before Title IX was enacted, institutions routinely restricted women through the use of quotas and higher admission standards and by discriminating against them in the award of financial aid. Athletic programs offered fewer varsity sports, inferior coaching and facilities. In the past decade, however, women have made tremendous gains in obtaining vocational, graduate and professsional degrees. The share of the athletic budgets going to them has more than doubled.

Berry described the commission's stand yesterday as "a last ditch effort to try to do something to keep the administration from making the same kind of mistake it did in the Bob Jones case, which is coming down on the side of injustice as opposed to justice." The administration backed the university's claim for tax-exempt status despite its discriminatory practices.

Chief Justice Warren Burger, writing the majority opinion in that case, found the "government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education." It has the same kind of fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating gender discrimination in education.

The intent of Congress when it passed Title IX was to give government the leverage to achieve educational equity for American women. There is nothing in the law to limit its enforcement. There is everything in the public interest to broaden it.