On the surface it appears the perfect target for the Reagan budget-cutters.

The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is a $50-million-a-year agency with 1,145 full-time employes. That's twice as big as it was just two years ago.

OCR's role is to investigate complaints, conduct reviews and secure compliance with the myriad federal statutes that prohibit discrimination because of age, sex, race or physical handicaps in educational institutions receiving government funds at every level, from elementary school through college and into graduate school.

To make it easy for the conservatives -- and almost to tempt them -- OCR published on inauguration eve, in the Jan. 19 Federal Register (page 5034), the details of its operating plan for fiscal 1981.

OCR watches 50 state education agencies, 16,000 local education agencies, 3,200 institutes of higher education and 50 state rehabilitation centers, along with other institutions such as libraries and museums that get federal aid.

The work outline for OCR's 415 investigators is bound to make dyed-in-the-wool anti-regulators see red. For example, one focus of their attention will be complaints alleging discrimination against women in the field of intercollegiate athletics. These primarily are cases where colleges and universities are accused of not spending as much money on women's sports as they do on men's.

The notice says that 144 such complaints are pending against 100 institutions. The notice promises in the coming year that "investigations will cover not only the specific allegations cited in the complaints, but also will be expanded in scope so that thorough reviews of the entire intercollegiate athletics programs of the affected institutions can be made."

Another field of inquiry to be expanded under OCR's plan is monitoring of school desegregation plans in various states. Six states are under regular review and that is to be expanded to eight this year.

Then there will be investigators turned loose to look into allegations of discrimination in the way elementary schools assign students to classrooms, special courses, ability groups and even athletics. Another group of investigators will pursue allegations that discipline, including suspensions and expulsions, is being meted out in a discriminatory fashion, based not only on race but also on national origin, sex or handicap.

OCR also plans to expand its monitoring into areas such as student counseling, but only after completing a "policy development effort" in the coming year.

Eight of its investigators will explore complaints of alleged discrimination against the admission of women into graduate and professional schools. But the notice cautions that OCR already believes that any denial of access because of race or physical handicap may come "because of the use of standardized admissions tests." The under-enrollment of women, it reports, is a result of "other factors."

But now the budget-snippers must be gleeful as such a fiscal prey. But, alas, they may be in for a jolt -- the kind of governmental surprise that frequently makes the difference between talking about making budget cuts and being able to pull them off.

Almost 90 percent of OCR's activities have not been undertaken solely because bleeding-heart liberals or activist left-wingers want to inject federal government snoopers into all parts of the educational system. OCR operates in these areas because of several federal court ordrs that, on their own, set the priorities and operations of the agency. As one OCR official put it last week, "Most of our work is nondiscretionary."

Even the publication of its operating plan, for example, is required by a court decision.

So if the budget-slashers want to start hacking away at OCR, they will have to stop off in federal court first.