It has not inspired flashly headlines, but a quiet and unconcluded revolution is radically changing the way the American public pays for its schools.

Motivated by challenges to traditional school support through property taxes, more than 20 states since 1970 have taken steps to make all districts' spending on pupils more nearly equal.

More change seems likely in other states.

Pending litigation will affect some. And in virtually every state where reform has not occurred, legislatures or commissions are studying the issue, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The changes affect the way the public pays its taxes, how much it pays, the programs that schools offer, the decisions homebuyers make when picking a place to live.

Generally, what is occuring is a shift in the school financing burden from the local level to the states, with an accompanying shift away from local property taxes and onto other revenue sources.

Ten years ago, 52.7 percent of school revenues across the country came from local sources, 39.3 percent from the state level and 8.0 percent from the federal level.

The federal share has not changed; it was 8.3 percent in the school year just past. But the local share has fallen to 47.6 percent, while the state share has risen to 44.1 percent, making them almost equal.

In some states, as a corollary, local property taxes have been cut. Reductions have run as high as 10 percent in Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin, to cite three examples.

Maine, Montana and Utah set up guaranteed school support programs, then "recaptured" from their wealthiest districts the locally raised tax money that exceeded guaranteed levels. Hawaii took over the full cost of its public schools.

New Jersey, after losing a lawsuit, was forced to relieve local property tax burdens and ravamp its general school support program. The result was adoption of an income tax in 1976 to pay the new state education expenses.

In California, after the state supreme court said in 1971 that the local property tax-based finance system was unconstitutional, more state money was provided to schools and local assessment disparities were eliminated.

Both Maryland and Virginia have taken steps to provide more aid to local schools, but the percentage of their assistance actually has declined during the decade.

According to the National Education Association, Virginia's share fell from 37.3 percent in 1967-68 to 31.8 percent in 1977-78. Maryland's share dipped from 35.8 percent to 34.2 percent.

In Maryland, state aid from general funds was increased $120 million in the last six years. But major disparities persisted from district to district. Affluent Montgomery County in 1976-77 spent $2,119 per pupil - with 73 percent of that raised locally. Cecil County, in contrast, spent $1,256 perpupil, with 42.9 percent from local sources.

Virginia's school'funding controversy has been intense since 1971, when a revised state constitution required the General Assembly to set uniform standards of quality for public education.

The new standards forced many small cities and rural counties to make major increases in local spending, putting new pressure on property taxes. Rural and urban government officials contend the state should pay more to help them meet the state-imposed standards. Urban officials additionaly complain that the complicated school money distribution formula, based on local tax capacity, favors rural counties.

"From the educational-equity as well as the tax aspects of it, yes, it is a revolution," said Dick Kohn, a school-finance attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under law.

The basis for it is relatively simple: tax practices and property wealth, which vary from district to district, are seen as tools that perpetrate unequal spending on education within a state.

And courts are holding that state constitutions, which generally assure equal educational opportunity for all pupils, are violated by traditional financing practices.

The newest court ruling, and potentially one of the most influential, came two weeks ago in New York. That case added another dimension - that kids in big cities are entitled to special school aid.

The New York ruling is the latest in a series. Other notables include California, where the landmark decision came in 1971, New Jersey and Connecticut. They have helped set the pace for change.

The lawyers committee, funded largely by the Ford Foundation, has been involved in a dozen or more other cases around the country, and is working on litigation in South Dakota, Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia and Massachusetts.

While the immediate impact in the classroom is more difficult to assess, some points show up in those states where changes have occurred:

Gaps in per-pupil spending are being closed between the affluent and the property-poor districts, in theory lessening the differences that make one's schools more appealing than anothers.

The idea of local control, through which the level of local support determines the quality of programs, may be deminished by greater state involvment in school-financing.

States' share of school spending during this period of change has climbed from just more than one-third to slightly over one half. Much of that state-aid increase is underwritten by federal revenue-sharing money, but new taxes and tax structure reform also have ensued.

If there is an irony in these state-by-state changes, it is that they are not spurred by interpretations of federal law, the engine of major change in public schools during the past 25 years.

Rather, state courts have been taking up where the U.S. Supreme Court left off in 1973, when it said, in a case from San Antonio, that discrimination in school is not covered by the U.S. Constitution.

In the Rodriguez case, as it is known, the Supreme Court said the Constitution guarantees no one an education. But most state constitutions, in one way or another, regard education as a right.

In the recent New York case, the judge were beyond the argument that spending disparities - which he found to be violations of the state's constitutional equal protection guarantees - were related to the wealth of individual districts.

Following that argument, districts with above-average property tax bases tax at lower rates, yet they tend to spend more per pupil than districts with low tax bases which levy higher taxes.

But Judge L. Kingsley Smith also held that the state must come up with a plan that will do more also provide additional help for pupils in large cities, where special programs for the disadvantaged add to costs, yet competition for tax dollars undercuts the schools.

The New York decision, although subject to appeal, is being watched closely by school-finance experts as a possible guide for litigation in large urban centers, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest.

"The battle now has been broadened to include educational need," said Bill Wilken, education specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

One part of the New York case involved several dozen "have-not" districts, headed by Levittown, which argued the now common position that a low property tax base undermined their school programs.

The other part involved the cities of New York, Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse, which were represented by Elliott C. Lichtman, a Washington attorney.

Lichtman's contention was that the existing state financing formula discriminated against the cities because their tax bases were drained by non-school expenditures - the so-called municipal overburden.

He said the "reality of the cities" was ignored by the formula. The reality includes high cost of municipal services, higher cost of living, the additional expense of teaching disadvantaged pupils, an aid formula that reduced state payments as absenteeism rose.

"The overburden argument is very important, but it won't work in all large cities," said Gus Steinhilber of the National School Boards Association. "If there is litigation along these lines, it will be important in the cities of the Northeast and around the Great Lakes."

Kohn, of the lawyers committee, noted that similar overburden arguments have been litigated in Cincinnati and Seattle. But he said the New York opinion is "a tremendous breakthrough."

These observers agree that popular demands for property tax reform have run hand in hand with the school-finance overhaul drive, each feeding on the other.

An open question is whether and how much the taxpayer sentiment stirred up by the success of California's tax-cutting Proposition 13 will affect school finances.

As Wilken pointed out, "Providing more state aid has been a convenient way of making the property tax more manageable at the local level. Proposition may make it harder to pull this off."

Kohn takes another view. "It is hard to assess the impact, but a Proposition 13-type move may achieve what we are trying to do anyway - eliminate the property tqx as a means of school funding."

Whatever, there is still no easy answer to the school's demands for more money. New York is the classic.

"If New York is upheld, I don't envy the legislature," Wilken said. "The normal solution is to put more money in the pot and give it to the have-nots."

He added, "The state's taxes and its spending on education is way out of line with everyone else, yet you have disparities between districts there. In Kansas or Iowa, for instance, it would be easier to pull off changes than in New York. It will tax everyone's ingenuity.