JUNIOR AND senior high school students in Pickens, S.C., are sometimes assigned to physical education classes that are segregated by sex when coeducational classes are filled. A complaint was filed on their behalf with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights because the school district receives $2 million in federal funds each year. The OCR found that the class assignment practice discriminated against both boys and girls, but an administrative law judge held that Washington had no authority in the matter, because none of the millions of dollars in federal grants to the school board was earmarked specifically for physical education programs.

Until last year, federal authorities had accepted responsibility in such cases, since it was assumed that institutions using federal funds had to be free of discrimination. But in February 1984, the Supreme Court held, in the case of Grove City v. Bell, that federal civil rights regulations could be applied only to specific programs receiving federal funds. The decision has impeded enforcement of laws protecting racial minorities, women, the aged and the handicapped -- more than 60 cases like the Pickens County dispute are involved -- and corrective legislation is needed.

The House Judiciary and Education and Labor committees have held joint hearings on a bill with 190 cosponsors that is supported by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. On Tuesday, the education panel is scheduled to mark up the bill, but there has been no action on the Senate side, where an alternative proposal is also pending. It was introduced by Sen. Robert Dole and has 14 cosponsors, as well as the support of the administration. The Dole bill deals only with discrimination in educational institutions -- a restriction the civil rights groups find unacceptable. To complicate matters further, Sen. Orrin Hatch, who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee which has jurisdiction over these bills, has introduced a measure to amend the civil rights laws to prohibit permanently the federal funding of abortions. Abortion funding is now prohibited annually by rider to an appropriations bill. It is possible that Sen. Hatch's proposal will get tangled up with the Grove City legislation and seriously delay Senate action.

Sen. Dole is the key player. He has, in the past, served as a chief negotiator on major civil rights compromises. As the majority leader, he has an opportunity to control floor action and stop delaying tactics. He enjoys the confidence of the civil rights groups and the administration and he understands the importance of the problems created by the Grove City decision. After the House acts, much will depend on whether he takes an active role in quickly moving this legislation to enactment.