SEPTEMBER is the month for schools to open. But this year the teachers' strikes and threats of strikes across the country have made that tradition seem more the exception than the rule. Teachers either are now or soon may be on strike in several states and major cities. Close to home, teachers and school officials in Arlington are locked in a contract dispute that has prompted the unions to order their members to "work to the rules," limiting extracurricular activity and after-school work. In the District, the Washington Teachers Union and school officials, after a delay of several months, this week settled a procedural dispute, thereby allowing negotiations on a new contract to begin. Despite the agreement to negotiate, the union still wants teachers to work to the rules to force school officials to honor the old contract (which expired last spring) during the bargaining sessions.

The gist of the dispute in Arlington, as elsewhere, is the teachers' push for higher salaries. In Washington, however, where the City Council legislatively sets teachers' salaries, the issues go to the heart of the schools' educational program.

For example, District teachers have the shortest workday of public school teachers in the Washington area. Should they work longer and gain a salary increase for doing so? Should the involvement of teachers in planning the schools' curriculum be reduced or increased? Since the schools' new curriculum is minutely detailed, should school officials required detailed lesson plans from teachers? Do the schools' policy and practice support or undermine teachers who discipline and fail students? Should standards for evaluating teachers be revised to clarify the responsibilities teachers will have under the new curriculum and the procedures for dismissing incompetent teachers? If the schools are forced to lay off teachers, how can that be done in a way that's fair to the affected employees and only minimally disrupts classroom activities?

Most of these issues are not new to school or union negotiators or to parents involved in their local schools. Now, however, they have an urgency that was lacking during the years when the schools' budget increased substantially every year. Now a sharply declining school enrollment is forcing school officials to consider numerous schools, laying off teacher aides, not hiring new teachers, and so on - and all this while trying to install a new curriculum aimed at improving the schools' academic quality. These are questions that can no longer be comfortably put aside for another few years. They need to be thoroughly discussed and resolved by both sides at the bargaining table - now.