Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) came to the defense yesterday of a $41 million education and vocational training program he sponsored for District prison system inmates, saying he has "not been pleased with the program" but that he is "hopeful" it will be shown the funds were not wasted.

In a news conference at National Airport yesterday, a day before the Republican primary in Pennsylvania in which he is a candidate for renomination, Specter responded to a news report detailing critics' charges that the so-called Specter Initiative has been largely ineffectual in training inmates and placing them in jobs after they leave prison.

"I continue to be optimistic that the education and vocational programs will be successful," Specter said. He added that he intends to call for an audit of the funds, saying, "I do intend to get the details on how the monies have been spent."

He said that the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on the District, of which he is chairman, or a Specter Initiative advisory committee headed by former Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste could conduct the audit. He also pointed out that it was "the fundamental responsibility" of the city government "to know precisely where the funds were spent."

"Another expectation I have is there would be job placement on an active basis, for which I have Mayor Marion Barry's personal assurance," Specter said.

At a hearing before the City Council's Judiciary Committee earlier in the day, Gwynne S. Washington, the Department of Corrections assistant director for educational services, testified that the Specter Initiative offers no job placement service for inmates, but that some inmates obtain jobs through the Mayor's Special Temporary Employment Program and a work-training program offered by the department.

In response to questions from committee Chairwoman Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8), Washington said the department's hopes to establish Second Chance Centers -- community job and counseling centers for inmates -- have not been realized. And there currently are no plans for the centers, which were originally envisioned as the inmates' bridge to the outside job market, she said.

The educational portions of the program are being reorganized, Washington said, noting that a critical problem faced by administrators is that inmates generally are too poorly educated to qualify for participation in vocational training courses.

She said that only three inmates at Lorton Reformatory's Youth Center I facility were able to take part in a computer repair course designed by Control Data Corp. "They just don't function at a level appropriate to this class," she said.

Washington testified that the $41 million program's emphasis on education would be heavier in the coming year than in the past, despite charges by critics that the program is already overloaded with academics at the expense of vocational training.

She revealed the outlines of a new computer-based approach to academic instruction, modeled on the system employed by the federal prisons.

The $290,000 computer program, designed by the Computer Curriculum Corp., will enable inmates to progress at their own speed and afford continuity in their lessons when they are transferred to other insitutions in the prison system, she said.

Washington appeared at the hearing with Corrections Director James F. Palmer, Deputy Director Hallem H. Williams and William D. Golightly, assistant director for administrative services. Her testimony provided the first comprehensive update on the initiative since July 1985.

Of the 6,000 inmates currently incarcerated in D.C. prisons, she said enrollment in academic programs has reached 1,524 inmates with 811 students attending vocational classes.

The administrator also gave an accounting of the vocational course offerings, which showed that inmates at Central Facility may select from 15 vocational subjects but that residents of the Minimum and Maximum Security facilities are offered just one course -- business typing.

At the Occoquan III facility, the only course -- housekeeping -- is being developed and not yet available, she said. At the D.C. Jail, inmates may choose from business typing and housekeeping.

Since the program was funded in October 1983, no one has completed a vocational program at the jail, two have completed the typewriting course at Maximum Security and 34 have finished typewriting at Minimum Security, according to figures supplied to Judiciary committee members by the Corrections Department. Fifty-one inmates have completed five courses at Central, with none yet completing the other 10 courses, which include upholstery, auto mechanics, carpentry and landscape gardening.