WHEN THE LATE Julius W. Hobson Sr. first went to court seeking an end to "systematic discrimination" favoring Washington's essentially white and underused schools, few could have foreseen the effect this suit would have on public education in the nation's capital. Similarly, the news this week of a legal settlement proposed by all parties to the suit - coming on the tenth anniversary of Judge J. Skelly Wright's first ruling - marks an enormously significant and healthy change in the workings of the entire city school system.

In effect, the settlement is a formal statement of confidence in today's school board, its superintendent and the changes in the classrooms that have evolved after a tumultuous decade. Judge Wright first abolished the city's infamous "track system," which had locked students in high and low academic programs. That order also outlawed the use of optional school-attendance zones, by which some white students had been able to circumvent disegregation.

Though that decree established a broad standard of "equality" for distributing educational services among black and white students, Mr. Hobson charged that the system still discriminated against poor blacks because per-pupil spending remained higher than average in the cluster of mostly white schools west of Rock Creek Park.

That led to Judge Wright's 1971 decree requiring equal per-pupilspending on teachers' salaries at every elementary school in the city. As we noted on this page at the time, that order was by no means a guarantee of better education - but it did attack an existing inequity. Mr. Hobson himself recognized then that the court's limiting of equalization requirements to teachers' salaries only would produce some other inequities.

That's what happened. The teacher money and teacher-pupil ratios that had been weighted in favor of white children shifted - along with an annual, confusing shift of hundreds of different teachers to different jobs and schools, usually in late fall and with debatable results in too many instances. Because teachers' salaries vary widely depending on seniority, the services that could be bought with equal amounts of dollars were varying just as sharply. So the city wound up with schools that had the most experienced classroom teachers being forced to have larger classes or fewer special subjects. It turned out, too, that many of these schools were not the predominantly white ones but the smaller buildings downtown.

While school boards, and superintendents came and went, nobody ever got away from the battlefield long enough to prepare the proper plan for changing or killing the Wright decree.

Until now. Under the quiet, efficient administration of superintendent Vincent E. Reed, and with the support of a serious, dedicated - and elected - school board, the settlement now being proposed to Judge Wright would be based on the most sensible of formulas: The school board would distribute resources on the basis of uniform teacher-pupil ratios. In short, the acent would be on class sizes, with teachers distributed according to enrollments instead of salaries.

The heartening message behind all this is not only that times have changed for the better in the administration. It is also, as the attorneys for the plaintiffs stated, that "concerned citizens seeking fair treatment for black and poor students in the public schools are far more likely to find relief from the elected board of education than they would have during the decades of neglect and discrimination that ultimately led to the corrective measures forced by this court's decrees."

That's an upbeat note, and the settlement certainly merits Judge Wright's approval - with what we would imagine must be a sense of relief that the city's school system is moving well on its own today. Obviously, there is still no magic in this that will produce better education. But the prospects for greater concentration on this objective are considerably brighter than they've been in 10years.