WE HAVE been saying that the next mayor, confronted by the city's bleak financial future, must not be afraid to make painful and even unpopular choices. But besides having the guts to make the tough calls, it will be just as important for the next mayor to bring to the office a clear idea of what those critical choices are and the relative importance of each to the city's future. One of the reasons we are supporting Sharon Pratt Dixon for mayor is that to us she seems to offer the best evidence of having carefully thought this through.

As a top executive in the competitive private sector, Mrs. Dixon has seen firsthand how rapidly the city's economic and social landscape is changing. And she has put her finger -- correctly, we believe -- on education and economic development as the critical areas, the areas in which real change must occur if the city is to retain its vitality and its children are to be prepared for a 21st century economy and society. To this end, Mrs. Dixon has taken the tough stance of pushing for the expansion of both the school day and the academic year, as well as for the adoption of a much more rigorous math, science and foreign languages curriculum. These decisions may not make her a crowd favorite on the playground, but she's making the right call when she says that "this is the only way our children will be able to compete in a marketplace that is not only highly technical but global." She also has made it clear that she is going to press the school board, teachers' union and parents to not only support her on these changes but also support her in one other critical area -- the raising of teachers' standards along with those for students. And Mrs. Dixon has let it be known that in a Sharon Dixon administration, the school board can expect to be held more accountable for its budget and that she will see to it that the board undergoes management audits to assure District taxpayers that they are getting the most for their educational dollar.

Mrs. Dixon knows that asking more from the students, teachers and parents while allowing the city's economic development and employment creation efforts to meander as they do now is a sure-fire prescription for loss of support for the schools. She knows also that it can ultimately lead to loss of interest by some of the students who would benefit most from an economically thriving city. Again, drawing on her public policy experience in the private sector, she has prepared a plan for economic development that takes the old "public-private" teamwork idea, given lip service in other quarters, and provides it with the unaccustomed dimension of specific goals, tasks and programs. The plan may be described as ambitious, and that's as it should be. It also shows a strong dose of realism. It addresses a need that many know exists but are reluctant to tackle: to develop a means of bringing into the partnership the "other Washington" of small and minority businesses and those who feel disenfranchised from the decision-making partnership in their own city to work with the Board of Trade and the next mayor.

Under Mrs. Dixon's plan, the partnership would organize an economic development resource center staff with experts to work with community-based groups on business projects. It would develop action plans for relief for distressed areas of Martin Luther King Avenue, Shaw, Georgia Avenue and Anacostia. Mrs. Dixon also includes the intriguing idea of a land bank, which could be used by the next administration to leverage the city's real property to support economic projects.

Espousing such daunting goals as job creation, neighborhood revitalization and a capital growth fund of $100 million for community and business investments, Mrs. Dixon has chosen as priorities the most legitimate and pressing of the numerous competing claims that will be thrust upon the next mayor.