Sex discrimination remains deeply entrenched in American education and is hurting the earning power of woman nationwide, the National Organization for Women charged yesterday.

"Men are still running the show," said Holly Knox, director of NOW's Project on Equal Education Rights (PEER). Some jurisdictions "are less dismal than others," she added, ranking the District of Columbia first is overall progress and Alabama last. Noting Alabama's dubious victory in "a hot competition" for the booby prize, she awarded the state a flag-striped "Silver Snail" trophy.

"The schools are still shuttling girls into traditional, low-paying jobs or no jobs at all," Knox said. She criticized a "Prince Charming mentality" that teaches girls to assume some strong male will come along and take care of them forever.

PEER studied three "traditional bellwethers of educational sex bias": the percentage of females among high school athletes, top school administrators and vocational education students. "All are traditional male strongholds," Knox noted.

"There has been real progress in sports," Knox said. In 1972, girls made up 18 percent of high school athletes and are 3 percent today, largely because the discrimination was so very obvious and so easily remedied, Knox continued. Iowa leads the states with 49 percent of its high school athletes being females, and Alabama is last on PEER's list of 15 percent.

Women are only 1 percent further along in running the schools than they were in 1972, holding 12 percent of the administrative jobs. In the District of Columbia, 51.2 percent of the principals and superintendents and their assistants are women, and the next highest is Maryland at 30 percent.

That may be because 80 percent of the District's teachers are women, which is far above the national 67 percent average, Knox said, "If we can get half the administrators to be women, everything else will change," she added. Utah ranked lowest in this category with 3 percent.

The percentage of women in traditionally male vocational education courses has "gone from minuscule to tiny," Knox noted: from 6 percent to 11 percent since 1972. By contrast, the number of boys in traditionally female home economics courses has risen from 8 percent to 19 percent over the last seven years, "probably because the predominantly women home ec teachers have been recuiting boys, but male vocational education teachers have not been recruiting girls," Knox said.

Women are not explicitly barred from any shop, mechanical or technical training courses because that would be illegal under Title IX of the 1972 amendments to education legislation.

"Instead there are subtle 'he' and 'she' wordings in the catalogues, differences in counseling recommendations and son," Knox related. "It's hard to draw the line between individual choice and the influences on these girls to make those choices."

Knox criticized federal enforcement of Title IX as "woefully laggard," saying states have a great deal of discretion in structuring education and should not be allowed to slack off. "If they don't want to move women ahead, so far they've been able to get away with it." she said.

"State and local officials can no longer pass the buck. If one can offer an equal chance for girls, so can the rest," Knox concluded.

Maryland ranked third overall in the study while Virginia was 21st. Both were dragged down by low rankings in the percentage of women athletes: 34 percent for Maryland and 25 percent for Virginia.