U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Rick West/AP)

Record numbers of Hispanic students are staying in high school, graduating and enrolling in college, but they lag behind other groups in preschool attendance, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday morning.

“Less than half of Hispanic children attend any kind of preschool – that’s kind of staggering,” Duncan told reporters at a breakfast meeting. “This is the fastest-growing population and a lower-than-average participation rate.”

In the past decade, Hispanics have made significant gains in later grades. In 2010, 78 percent of Hispanics graduated from high school, compared to 64 percent in 2000. During the same period, the high school dropout rate for Hispanics was cut in half from 28 percent to 14 percent.

And, for the first time, Hispanics enrolled in college in 2012 at higher rates than white students. According to a Pew Research Center analysis released this month, 69 percent of Hispanic high school graduates in the class of 2012 enrolled in college that fall compared to 67 percent of white students.

While all of that is cause for celebration, Duncan said, policymakers, community leaders and educators need to increase the rates of Hispanic children who attend preschool.

The achievement gap between poor and privileged children shows up as early as kindergarten, with poor children starting school one to two years behind more affluent 5-year-olds. “You’re 5 years old and you’re entering school 1 to 2 years behind and you wonder why we have an achievement gap.”

By age 3, children of white-collar parents have a working vocabulary of 1,116 words, while children in working-class families know 749 words and children whose families are on welfare know 525 words, according to an oft-cited 2003 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley.

Poor children who attend quality preschool programs are less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, more likely to be employed and earn higher incomes, and less likely to receive public benefits as adults, when compared to at-risk children who do not attend preschool, several studies have shown.

“We can keep trying to play catch-up or we can have an effect on the front end, by leveling the playing field from the beginning,” he said. In some cases, Hispanic children don’t have access to preschool and, in other cases, Hispanic families are reluctant to take advantage of available opportunities, Duncan said.

“These are real issues but they can be overcome,” he said. “At the end of the day, parents want the right thing for their kids.”

In his fiscal 2014 budget, President Obama has proposed a new federal partnership with states to offer universal preschool for all 4-year olds. The federal government would help states pay for “high quality” by nearly doubling the federal tobacco tax from $1.01 to $1.95 to raise $75 billion over 10 years. The federal government would provide matching funds to enroll children in families with incomes up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level in preschool. States would have to enroll at least 50 percent of their low-income and middle-income children in order to qualify. The state’s contribution would start at 10 percent for the first two years, increasing to 40 percent by the fifth year.

The president has also proposed a $15 billion long-term investment in a home visiting program, which pays for nurses and social workers to visit low-income families and help them support the development of their infants and toddlers.