In a dramatic move to break a 23-year impasse, the Justice Department asked the federal courts yesterday to integrate the giant Houston school system with 22 suburban school districts.

It is the first time that the Justice Department has asked for metropolitan integration, overlapping city and district boundaries, in any large urban area.

Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti announced that the department had asked the U.S. District Court in Houston to impose a metropolitan-wide school desegregation plan in order to end "acts of purposeful radical discrimination that have fostered a racially segregated system of public education in the metropolitan area."

It may signal a new turn toward a more concerted desegregation effort along metropolitan lines.

The suit involves 487,218 children, more than in the Chicago school system.

Houston's independent school system, with 177,218 children is the sixth largest in the country. Forty-six percent of its pupils are black, 28 percent Hispanic and 26 percent white and other groups.

The 22 surrounding districts have 310,000 children, 21.6 percent of them black or Hisanic.

The Justice Department, which entered the case in 1967, about 11 years after a group of parents first sued Houston over segregation, charged that minority students have been deliberately hemmed in and concentrated in Houston by systematic school and social policies undertaken by governmental authorities throughout the area.

These policies allegedly include a student transfer system operated by the school systems, the city's refusal to approve low-income public or subsidized housing outside minority neighborhoods, state encouragement of discrimination in the housing market and by the state's refusal to let the Houston schools expand.

These policies, the department said, have been undertaken not just by Houston, but by all of the 23 school systems involved, by the state of Texas and by the Texas Education Agency.

The action could cost President Carter politically. He narrowly won Texas in the 1976 election, capturing 51.5 percent of the vote against then-president Ford. Earlier this month, he easily defeated Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in a nonbinding primary, but one Democratic voter in five rejected both candidates. No Democrat in modern times has won the White House without winning Texas. n

The government is also involved in a school suit in Dallas.

William L. Taylor, director of the Catholic University Center for National Policy and chairman of the Civil Rights Compliance Committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said yesterday's action was the first major metropolitan case in which the Justice Department had initiated a request for a metropolitan solution.

"If the [1954] Brown decesion is to have any practical meaning, we have to breach the wall between city and suburbs." Taylor said. "What we have now in many areas is two one-race school systems side by side."

He expressed pleasure at the Justice Department action, saying, "It is very important to the civil rights movement that the government be on its side in these cases."

The Justice Department didn't suggest any specific desegregation plan, and a spokeman noted that some of the distances involved are large: Houston alone is 556 square miles. The department said it will ask the court to direct the 23 school districts, plus state and local government officials, to work out an areawide desegregation plan.

In past years, the department said, when Texas schools were racially segregated by law, 16 of the metropolitan school districts either provided no schools for blacks or offered schooling for fewer than 12 years -- and forced the blacks to travel to all-black schools.

The department has initiated requests for metropolitan remedies to segregation in a handful of tiny southern districts in the past, like Conway County, Ark., nine small all-black jurisdictions in Texas and Monroe and Ouachita parishes (counties), La.

And it has supported metropolitan solutions in Wilmington, where the schools of the city were intergrated with surrounding districts in New Castle County, and Detroit, where the metropolitan-wide request lost.

But if had never initiated a request itself in a large urban area.

Only a few days ago the Supreme Court affirmed a lower court decision involving the city of Atlanta in which a metropolitan-wide request was disallowed. In that case, the decision turned on the question of whether it could be proved that the districts involved had deliberately fostered continued racial separation.

Justice sources noted yesterday that the department was filing its Houston request in fullawareness of the Atlanta decision. The Justice filings make clear that the department believes it can prove deliberate state and district acts to foster continued school segregation.

Justice said it would favor, as guidelines to how the metropolitan plan should be drawn up, using voluntary student transfers whenever possible; minimizing travel time and distance if students have to be reassigned and/or bused; and trying to avoid distruption of stable desegregated neighborhoods.

An interesting aspect of the suit is that it cites nonschool government policies, like housing discrimination, as part-and-parcel of school discrimination policies.