The D.C. Board of Education and the Washington Teachers' Union are now in the final stages of negotiating a three-year contract that threatens our school system's ability to attract and retain the best possible teachers. Regrettably, the tentative agreement leaves D.C. teacher pay schedules well below teacher salaries in surrounding suburban school systems and leaves D.C. students with an instructional day shorter than that routinely provided to students in suburban systems.

Although the District must compete with neighboring school systems for new teachers, the draft agreement would increase beginning D.C. teacher salaries from only $19,980 in FY 1987-88 to $22,661 in FY 1989-90, as compared with starting salaries of $22,000 this year in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, where salaries will increase to near or well above $25,000 in FY 1989-90. By FY 1989-90, top teachers will be making nearly $52,000 in Montgomery County and $57,000 in Fairfax County, while the upper limit for their colleagues in the District will be only $45,928.

District teachers, once at a midpoint in regional salaries, will fall to the bottom of the scale. Any prospect for getting the best new teachers in our region will be severely limited, and the risk of losing good teachers already employed will be greatly increased. This is a prescription for educational failure.

Just as the proposed contract fails to provide comparable pay for teachers, it also fails to extend the D.C. teachers' workday to the 7 1/2 hours routinely required in suburban jurisdictions. The pending contract's seven-hour day translates over a year into far less time for regular academic instruction and music, art and physical education, which are now severely limited. Although the teachers' union has objected to a longer day without greater pay and adequate time for implementation, the board of education has apparently never made a formal offer of truly comparable pay in return for an extended day to be implemented in the second and third year of a new contract.

The board's failure to pursue a contract that provides for competitive pay and a longer day is particularly disappointing because such contract terms have obvious educational benefits and enjoy broad public support from parents and community leaders. This support is clear both from the recent report of a citizens' committee -- whose distinguished membership includes Marion Wright Edelman, Vincent Reed, John Hechinger and Delano Lewis -- and from the overwhelming vote in favor of the D.C. Public School Initiative, which was enacted last November.

Both the citizens' committee report and the initiative recognized the importance of providing sufficient funds to attract and retain highly qualified teachers in our city's schools. The board's current position is also alarming because Mayor Barry and all newly elected board members -- including its new president, Linda Cropp -- pledged to support comparable pay for teachers during their most recent election campaigns.

Fortunately, there is still time to rectify this situation. Even if the union should endorse the contract, the board can still extend an alternative offer that would allow teachers the choice of comparable pay for comparable work or a shorter day and far less pay. To increase pay significantly would certainly add to our school budget -- perhaps $9 million this year. The real question, however, is not whether we can afford to make such an investment in our children, but whether we can afford not to do so.

-- Roderic V. O. Boggs and Vernon X. Smith are, respectively, counsel to and co-president of Parents United for the D.C. Public Schools.