A major administration proposal to turn control of federal education funds over to the states was junked in Congress two weeks ago with the help of one of the Hill's most ardent advocates of states' rights.

The proposal was President Reagan's plan to unite 44 federal aid-to-education programs into two giant "block grants" to be disbursed at the discretion of the states. The action that scotched the plan was engineered, to the astonishment of many, by Rep. John M. Ashb rook (R-Ohio), the senior Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee.

Of all candidates to thwart the administration on this issue, Ashbrook seems the least likely. To put it mildly, he is no believer in big government or in federal dictation to the states. Moreover, he voted against the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965 and against its continuation in 1974 and 1978. In the last go-around, he led a move for block grants.

Nevertheless, it was Ashbrook who drafted and forced into the successful House Republican budget susbstitute a plan that would keep the biggest categorical programs alive as separate entities.Under the administration plan, the money for all the programs would have been blended and the states allowed to spend it pretty much as they wished, funding one program heavily and starving the others if they chose.

The Ashbrook draft also formed the basis for a similar proposal engineered by Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.) and accepted not only by Senate Labor Committee Democrats but eventually by Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) as well.

Ashbrook doesn't view his actions as a break with the administration. In a telephone interview, he said he and the administration were moving in the same direction, toward a reduction of federal controls. The disagreement, he said, was over how fast and how far the process should go, with the administration wanting to go further.

"We had a little more expertise than they," he said. To put everything into block grants and cut funds at the same time, he said, "I don't think is really palatale."

Some suggest that Ashbrook parted company with the administration in an attempt to win favor with education groups in Ohio, whre he intends to challenge Democratic Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum next year. Ashbrook indignantly denies the suggestion.

It's also possible that Ashbrook was miffed that the administration, in pursuing its own block-grant proposal, paid scant attention to Ashbrook's three-year-old plant to reduce federal control over education aid, even though as senior Republican on the committee he would necessarily play a key role in any action.

The Ashbrook measure originated in 1978, and was introduced last year and again on Jan. 5, 1981.

Under the Ashbrook plan, as adopted by the House despite administration unhappiness, the big Elementary and Secondary Education Title I program of grants to school districts and states, earmarked for speical help to low-income and educationally underprivileged children, was kept as a separate targeted program with a $3.5 billion annual authorization, albeit with some relaxation of federal control.

The Education for the Handicapped Act also was kept alive as a separate program, with its language and guarantees to the handicapped intact, at $1.1 billion.

Representatives of inner-city black children, one of the main groups benefiting from Title I, and of handicapped children believed that putting both programs into a single block would force the two big programs to compete with each other for money.

The adult education program, the Follow Through program and a few tiny programs also were kept separte by the Ashbrook House language.

The Ashbrook amendment did put into a block grant, starting in 1983, about two dozen small programs with a total yearly authorization of $584 million. But those account for only about 10 percent of the education funds the administration wanted to put into block grants.

Against administration wishes, the Ashbrook amendment also would retain, with some changes, language barring states and localities from reducing their own financial efforts and using the federal money to supplant, instead of supplement, local outlays.