Expect a "renewed, vigorous" effort by the Education Department over the next four years to align itself more closely with Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign promises.

Undersecretary Gary L. Jones, overseeing the department in the absence of departing Secretary T.H. Bell, said last week that the department's "emphasis on vouchers, tuition tax credits and school prayer will be renewed with a vigorous approach to Congress and parents across the country."

A recurring Reagan theme has been the need to increase "parental choice" in education. Parents of children in private schools could qualify for tuition tax credits, and lower-income parents would receive vouchers to spend as they choose instead of relying on grant programs for education for the disadvantaged. Reagan also has emphasized the need to give state and local agencies more control over their federal funds.

There will be "continued emphasis on how to better appropriate to the states," Jones said.

Reagan repeated that point in an article entitled, "Overview of Education Reform Issues," published in August by the conservative Free Congress Research and Education Foundation. "The primary right, duty and responsibility for educating children belongs to parents," Reagan said. "Their wishes should be heeded."

Jones did not want that point to be lost. A major aspect of the president's initiatives this time around, Jones said, "is a strong decentralized effort . . . . We have created the greatest decentralization effort in history," he said, referring to the states' response to the April 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

In response to the report, which noted "a rising tide of mediocrity" in U.S. schools, states have begun studies, authorized task forces, instituted tougher graduation requirements and considered changes in teacher pay and certification.

Maintaining budget levels is a key to the department's future role. Bell, in his last news conference as secretary, said, "Education is so special that it ranks in priority alongside or possibly ahead of the Defense Department . . . ." He said he didn't anticipate any "major changes" in appropriations.

Jones said the department "must be as sensitive to the budget constraints as any other federal agency."

"I not contradicting Dr. Bell," he said. "I know what he said. I'm just saying that we must be as sensitive."

Rumors persist that Jones may soon leave the government. Asked if he planned to stay, he would say only: "I serve at the pleasure of the president."

Although his name had been mentioned as a possible successor to Bell when he resigns Dec. 31, two other names have eclipsed Jones': those of William J. Bennett, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and John R. Silber, president of Boston University. FUTURE OF NIE? . . .

In his "swan song," Bell urged the news media to watch what happens to the National Institute of Education, which he said has been "greatly maligned." Bell said the NIE, the department's research arm, suffered from "the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome," noting that it probably had been "the battlefield of the department."

"I'd remind all of you that the NIE was the home base and the sponsor of the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education," Bell said.

"If I were asked to single out the proudest achievements of my administration's [first term]," Reagan wrote in his Free Congress Foundation article, "what we've done to define the issues and promote the great national debate in education would rank . . . near the top of the list . . . ."

Under the law that created the department, Bell noted, "the [new] secretary does have the authority to eliminate NIE." But he said he hoped that authority would not be used.

A Heritage Foundation report circulated at a Reagan Cabinet meeting last week recommends that the NIE, the National Center for Education Statistics and the Office of Education Research and Improvement be abolished and their functions combined into a new Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research.