Education Secretary Arne Duncan reads to a group of 4-year-olds Monday morning at Centro Nia, a bilingual preschool in Langley Park, Md. which receives county, state and federal funding. More than 90 percent of the children who attend Centro Nia come from families in need. (Photo by Lyndsey Layton/The Washington Post)

The nation is moving too slowly in terms of providing quality preschool to its youngest learners, especially low-income children who desperately need a strong educational foundation, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday morning at a bilingual preschool in Langley Park, Md.

“The current pace of change is far too incremental,” said Duncan, who also read a story about a lion to a class of very enthusiastic 4-year-olds at CentroNia. “We have to think about transformational change.”

Duncan unveiled a new report by the the National Institute for Early Education Research, which found that in 2014, despite increased state funding for preschool and repeated calls by President Obama for preschool for all 4-year-olds, just 29 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs.

[Access to preschool varies widely by state.]

That’s a slight increase over prior years, but at that rate, it would take 75 years before just half of eligible children in the U.S. were enrolled in quality preschool, said Steve Barnett, the director of NIEER, which is based at Rutgers University. His organization wants all states to offer high-quality preschool within 10 years and require that preschool teachers are college graduates trained in early childhood education. NIEER also wants Congress to increase federal support for preschool.

Meanwhile, new research shows that poor children are typically enrolled in the lowest-quality programs. “The goal isn’t just access,” Duncan said. “It’s quality, too.”

[Economic segregation starts in preschool]

Early childhood education has been a priority for the Obama administration for the past several years, and Duncan has criss-crossed the country, urging state leaders and Congress to pump more resources into publicly funded preschool. Two years ago, the Obama administration proposed that Congress raise federal tobacco taxes to help states pay for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, but that idea got a cool reception from Congressional Republicans.

[Arne Duncan tries to sell preschool around the nation]

As lawmakers work to rewrite No Child Left Behind, the main federal education law, the Obama administration unsuccessfully tried to get funding for early childhood education included in a bill passed last month by the Senate education panel. Instead, the committee agreed to insert language in the bill to create a competitive grant program for states that want to improve preschool quality and access. But that necessarily means some states would win grant money, while others would get nothing.

And whether that bill eventually will be passed by the full Senate and the House and become law is unclear. And it is likely to make a small dent in a “tremendous, unmet need,” Duncan said.

“We need more resources. We need Congress to invest, to partner with states to expand access,” Duncan said. “If this law goes forward without early childhood in it, that would be a huge, huge mistake.”

Duncan stopped into a cheery classroom and folded his 6-foot-5 frame into a tiny wooden chair to read a book about a lion to the children, who giggled and roared along with Duncan during key moments in the story. Afterwards, they shouted “gracias” and crowded around his legs, reaching up for repeated high-fives from the secretary, who told them to “keep working hard.”

Centro Nia, which has several locations in Maryland and the District of Columbia, educates 1,000 children in a bilingual model, said president Myrna Peralta. The organization receives federal, state and county funding, and 90 percent of its students come from low-income families, she said.