The U.S. Office of Education, overseer of $9 billion worth of federal educational programs annually, has evolved over the past decade into a sluggish bureaucracy, unwilling to enforce federal educational policy, a coalition of civil right groups has charged.

In 1965, at a time of minimal federal involvement in education, the groups noted, the Office of Education was a small service agency. It was staffed chiefly by bureaucrats whose backgrounds "were often shaped in unaggressive state educational bureaucracies."

They were unprepared for the new federal role in education, including the setting of standards, issuance of regulations, monitoring, enforcing sanctions against illegal practices and evaluating programs, the coalition contends.

"The result has been, the groups said in the 85-page paper delivered in March to Secretary of Health. Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr., "a failure of policy, of enforcement and of integrity. There has been too little evaluation, too little consistency in regualtion, too much confusion and delay in regulation . . ."

Calling themselves the Education Coalition, the authors of the paper included representatives of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Alabama Council on Human Relations, the Children's Defense Fund, the Federal Education Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Southeastern Public Education Program of the American Friends Service Committee.

They asked Califano to meet with them to discuss possible remedies, but Califano declines. He said he would see to it that top HEW officials study the coalition's paper. The Office of Education said last week it would have no immediate comment.

Disclosure of the coalition's paper coincided with release of a draft report by the Commission on Federal Paperwork in which the Office of Education was accused of overwhelming local schools, school system and colleges in mountains of paperwork.

"Educators complain that the rapid growth of educational bureaucracies at all levels has led to an increased concentration on the regulatory and administrative process and the diversion of faculty from their primary responsibility - teaching. One result has been the creation of an atmosphere of hostility . . . bringing with it ver real, though intangible costs.

"School systems say they are drowning in paperwork," the report noted. At the college level, it went on, one 15-page application for federal assistance for needy students is so complicated that the Office of Education had to issue a 17-page set of instructions explaining how to fill the form out.

At a press conference shortly after assuming office in early April, U.S. Education Commissioner Ernest L. Boyer acknowledged that the paperwork requirements of his office "had reached crisis proportions" and that something had to be done about it.

In particular, the Education Coalition's study of the Office of Education found the bureaucrats singularly unaggressive in attempting to recover federal money found to have been misspent by the state or local school systems.

"The problem is that the Office of Education is run by people who come from the constituency that OE is supposed to regulate," said Phyllis McClure of the Legal Defense Fund, one of the authors of the study.

"Their sympathy is with the people who are to be regualted."

The paper noted that during a 10-year period auditors from HEW found $241 million distributed by the Office of Eucation under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to have been misspent by state or local school systems. (Title I is intended to supplement educational programs for disadvantaged children).

Yet, the report said, the Office of Education requested reimbursement of only $7 million of that money, and, in fact, less than $700,000 was actually returned.

"In number of instances, the Office of Education appears to negotiate away recoverable Title I dollars without apparent rhyme or reason," said one internal OE memorandum obtained last week by The Washington Post.

Chartered by Congress in 1867 essentially to gather statistics on education, the Office of Education has broadened its scope dramatically in the past 15 years to the point where it now funds programs ranging from bilingual education to compensatory education for poor children to vocational education. It administer 120 programs, compared with fewer than 35 in 1965, and each theoretically requires regulation, evaluation and monitoring.

In fact, according to some Office of Education employees, very little hard evaluation ever gets done. Once started, programs are likely to continue forever, regardless of their value to children, because they mean jobs for bureaucrats.

"For 98 per cent of the people here, they've never had it so good," said one OE employee. "They come from state and local school systems and most of them are making over $30,000 a year here and that's more than they've ever made in their lives.

"They are very security conscious, they don't want to take chances and they have no place to go. If they go back to the local school system, they have more trouble, they have to work harder and they get less pay."

Another person who does program evaluations for the Office of Education said, "OE simple will not accept an unfavorable evaluation of a program. If you turn in an unfavorable evaluation, they'll just rewrite it."

"Other than making sure that states got their money and making sure it was spent, there was no real role for the Office of Education," said another official. "I don't know anyone around here who wants to monitor."

The one cardinal rule at OE, several employees said, is to make sure that all money available does, in fact, get spent. The Office of Education declined to comment on the charges from the employees, who asked that their names not be used.

On employee recalled sitting in an office toward the end of the fiscal year when a complete set on new furniture arrived unexpectedly.

When the employee asked about it, she said, the answer was simple and direct:

"We had money left over in the budget and we had to spnd it somehow."