If you were as much of an admirer of George McKenna as I am, the prospect of having lunch with him would excite you. Exhausted from the red-eye flight from California, he arrived at a Washington restaurant. But the voluble principal of George Washington High School in Los Angeles readily shared his worries over the "get tough" approach to education.

"I am frightened by the Joe Clark phenomenon," he began. "He can only call students 'leeches' and 'parasites.' I am often used as a counterpoint to him. But the media isn't asking what I'm doing in my school. I ask reporters why Joe Clark is so important. They answer, 'Because he is important to the White House.' And Joe Clark goes around saying, 'It's wonderful to be a Republican.' I see him as a dangerous person."

Some people would say the future of public education is on trial today, with Joe Clark, the bat-and-bullhorn toting principal of Eastside High in Paterson, N.J., and McKenna, the no-nonsense but nurturing principal of George Washington Prep, representing its polar viewpoints. While U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett has praised both men for turning around low-income students, and McKenna's school has even had a CBS-TV movie made about it, it is Clark, cradling his signature baseball bat to symbolize his "toughlove" approach -- who recently made the cover of Time.

I was eager to hear how McKenna had worked with difficult learners -- the ones too many people seem cynically willing to write off.

"I put the responsibility on the teachers," answered McKenna. "There is a lot of incompetence in this profession, what I call imposters.

" . . . Every teacher needs knowledge of subject matter, understanding of the process that students go through to learn, and a nurturing attitude . . . . The notion that attitudes should change first is something with which I greatly disagree. The behavior of teachers is the answer."

Setting out to modify teacher behavior to get the results he wanted, McKenna said he required his teachers to do several things. This included to give homework every night, do lesson plans, call pupils' homes as much as possible, conduct parent-education workshops, help parents to help each other, and make every test a comprehensive one that included previously taught material.

Furthermore, to involve families in the learning process, he hired three parents to run a parent-community support system. They spend their time calling other parents encouraging them to visit classes and stroll graffiti-free halls. To help his students, who are predominantly black and Hispanic, learn about their heritage, he supplemented the curriculum and instituted culture clubs. Among myriad extracurricular activities is a Bible reading club started by students.

Listening to McKenna talk eagerly, his lunch growing cold, I thought of John Hope Franklin, the University of Chicago history professor emeritus and now James B. Duke professor emeritus at Duke University, who said the black scholar must not only practice high-quality scholarship but also advocate justice and equality. It struck me that McKenna, not Joe Clark, best epitomized the tradition described by Franklin.

For while Clark has restored order and ejected the dope dealers, reading scores at his school remain in the bottom third of the nation's high school seniors and the number of students going to college from his school is up only from 182 in 1982 to 211 last year. Aside from the 60 students he recently suspended and called "leeches" and "parasites," his school's overall dropout rate has risen from 13 percent to 21 percent.

While McKenna also has transformed his inner-city school from one where gangs ruled the halls to a peaceful environment, absenteeism has dropped by two-thirds, and more than three- quarters of each graduating class attend college.

McKenna had come to Washington for a Black History Month salute, and it seemed appropriate that it was an educator, G. Carter Woodson, who began that observance. Educators have been among the most influential figures in black history.

But if the current crisis in public education makes the future of many black Americans extremely uncertain, it also threatens the strength of the nation. Having lunch with McKenna was more than an interesting encounter with a passionate man: It was a reminder that today's educational challenges will require nothing less than a total reordering of our societal priorities to put young people back at the center of our concerns.