In an unusual step for a union, the National Education Association has urged the US Supreme Court to sustain preferential treatment for minorities in racial-discrimination cases, rather than following labor's traditional seniority principle.
The NEA position: Though ''commitment to the seniority principle is strong, it is not absolute.'' The 1.7-million-member teachers' union set forth its positon in a friend-of-the-court brief that says: ''When, because of racial discrimination, the percentage of minorities in the work force is significantly below the percentage in the relevant labor market, affirmative-action programs which take conscious account of race may be necessary to achieve true equal-employment opportunity.''
The US Department of Education claims a billion-dollar savings in the cost of running the student-loan program over the last 15 months. The reason, officials say, is ''the Reagan administration's successful battle to bring down inflation and interest rates.''
The decreased cost of the loan program is a direct result of the decline in the special-allowance, or interest, rates the department pays private lenders. These rates dropped from 12.5 percent for the quarter ending Sept. 30, 1981, to 4.75 percent for the quarter ending Dec. 31, 1982.
According to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming will have high school graduating classes as large or larger than they now are through 1995.
All other states are expected to have a declining number of high school students. Utah is expected to gain the highest percentage of graduates between 1980 and 1995, an additional 58 percent.
Of states with a projected loss in student population, Rhode Island tops the list, with a 45 percent decline.
Alas, your report on school expenditures in California (Jan. 28, page B9) is out of date. California is falling fast in the state rankings of dollars spent per pupil. The figure you give for California ($2,164) is for the 1979-80 school year. That year we did rank 24 among the 50 states. In 1980-81 we dropped to 30th. Last year we ranked 35th. The figures are not in yet for this year. (Data is from National Education Association.)
Thirty fifth? Are Californians satisfied with that position? I doubt it. Our state even has the dubious distinction of placing last among the 50 states in percentage of per capita income spent on education.
School funding is deteriorating more rapidly in California than most citizens realize. There is even the possibility that the state will send school districts IOU's with which to pay our teachers this spring.
California voters have traditionally supported education generously. When they understand the schools' needs, I'm sure they will again. Carolyn Tucher, President Board of Education Palo Alto Unified School District
Based on an informal survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the following states and school systems have been forced to make the most cuts in employment this school year:
* New Jersey - 6,000 teachers and other professionals.
* Detroit - 580 teachers.
* Los Angeles - 433 teachers.
* Boston - 1,160 school employees.
* Philadelphia - 1,550 jobs eliminated.
* Minnesota - 6,000 teachers.
* Baltimore - 500 teachers and aides.
* Seattle - 462 teachers.
* New York City - 4,400 employees.