The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to decide whether state and local governments can compel owners of private property to accept less compensation under laws to preserve historic landmarks than under laws permitting property to be taken for other public purposes.

The case is of concern to numerous states, counties and cities with historic-landmark preservation laws, including Virginia, London County, Va., the District of Columbia and Baltimore.

The justices will review a decision by New York's highest court upholding a denial of compensation to the Penn Central Transportation Co. for the loss of development rights at Grand Central Terminal in New york City.

The city's Landmark Preservation Commission designated the terminal a landmark in 1967, which meant that the terminal could not be altered without commission approval.This prevented Penn Central from building an office tower atop the terminal, which opened in 1913, and collecting $1 million annually during the construction period and at least $3 million a year thereafter in rental income.

The bankrupt railroad contended that the action amounted to taking private property for public use in violation of the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws.

The New York Court of Appeals disagreed. It ruled in June that the owner of a historic landkmark is entitled to claim comprensation based on the value of the historic property.But, the court said, the owner isn't "absolutely entitled" to be compensated for the loss of development.

Penn Central contends the ruling runs counter to all previous Supreme Court decisions on the taking of private property for public purposes.

The court took other actions: DAY SCHOOL/NIGHT SCHOOL

Reversing the Idaho Supreme Court, the court upheld a state law that denies unemployment benefits to day students but grants them to night students.

The law has a reasonable basis - daytime school attendance more severly limits access to plentiful daytime jobs than night-time attendance does to scarcer night jobs - and consequently doesn't offend the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Constitution, the court said in an unsigned opinion.

The court acknowledged the law to be "imperfect." In fact, the person who challenged it, Mariene G. Smith of Boise, maximized her availability for daytime work by attending classes from 7 to 9 a.m. These hours could have been defined as "night school," Justice Harry A. Blackmun said in a separate opinion.

Justice John Paul Stevens objected to the court's acting at all in the case, terming the decision another of its "random and spasmodic efforts to correct errors summarily," that is, without full briefing and oral argument. WESTERN WATER

The court agreed to review a decision that, California says, could have "enormous impact" on the use of score water resources by the 16 Western states.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that a 1902 federal law requires Interior Department water reclamation projects to comply with the "forms," but not the substance, of state laws governing such projects - and then only if compliance is consistent with federal purposes.

California asked for review, asserting that the decision "prevents the states from having a voice in decisions that affect their destiny."

In the Central Valley, California wants to use water to enhance the environment, while Interior wants to promote growth and development, the state's brief said. CIVIL RIGHTS

The court let stand a Fifth U.S. Cicruit Court of Appeals ruling that federal employees have the same right as nonfederal workers to file civil rights class actions. The ruling involved racial bias charges against the Tennessee Valley Authority. The Justice Department refused to represent TVA in the Supreme Court. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights initiated the case in behalf of blacks challenging TVA in and around Muscle [WORDS ILLEGIBLE]