AUGUSTA, Maine — Early childhood education advocates are calling a decision by the state to not apply for up to $37 million in federal “Race to the Top” grant funding a missed opportunity for Maine families.

The Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services said the decision was because of onerous federal requirements and the fact that work to improve early childhood education is already underway.

Ned McCann, executive director of the Maine Children’s Alliance, said Friday that he and other members of the Maine Children’s Growth Council learned in October that the state had decided not to pursue the funding despite having applied in previous rounds.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” he said. “It’s my understanding that we were in line for the money. We had applied in the first round, where one tier of states received the grants, and I thought that we were in line to apply in the second round. This was a silly decision.”

A total of 16 states and the District of Columbia applied for $280 million in Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Those grants, which have not yet been awarded, are designed to improve early childhood education programs, particularly for high-needs students. They also support states’ efforts to integrate programs that operate independently.

Maine has tried and failed to win Race to the Top Grants twice. In 2011, when the Maine departments of education and health and human services applied for $32.2 million, state officials said they were surprised Maine’s application hadn’t been successful and vowed to continue their work to improve the programs.

Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, said her department and DHHS decided earlier this year that those efforts would be more successful if they continue without “unreliable” one-time federal involvement.

“Instead of spending months developing an exhaustive application and then months holding our breath to see whether it was successful, we’d rather keep our good work moving while looking for funding sources that are sustainable and flexible enough to ensure that our efforts can best evolve to support all Maine children,” wrote Warren in response to emailed questions.

Warren said much of that work is being done by a group called the State Agency Indepartmental Early Learning and Development Team. The group’s task is to ensure coordination between the Department of Education and DHHS by streamlining policies and procedures and eliminating inefficiencies that sometimes lead to “rough transitions across programs as people age,” according to the group’s website. Warren said those goals would be complicated with the involvement of the federal government.

“What we’ve heard is that with that [Race to the Top] funding comes incredibly tight restrictions that prevent [the development team] from being as flexible as they need to be to serve the children of the state and not the demands of the federal government,” said Warren in an interview. “We did not at the department level feel that this was something worth applying for at this time.”

Maine Education Association President Lois Kilby-Chesley said Friday that the MEA is “always looking for opportunities for new funding,” but that Race to the Top grants are widely known to be difficult to administer.

“There are a lot of requirements that are attached to that money,” said Kilby-Chesley. “What we would prefer to do is have the money under local control as opposed to at the state or federal level.”

Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, who is a member of the Maine Children’s Growth Council, said state government has a long history of working through stringent federal requirements, including a recent months-long process that led to a waiver for Maine from the Early and Secondary Education Act. Alfond said skipping the Race to the Top grant application stems from Gov. Paul LePage, whom he and McCann said has been lobbied in recent months to reverse the grant application decision.

“This is a missed opportunity and quite honestly something that every single person in the state should sit back and say, ‘what is going on in Augusta when the chief executive denies an opportunity for young children and families to get a good start?’” said Alfond. “The state is losing out on an opportunity that every other state now is going to take advantage of.”

LePage’s press office did not respond to messages from the Bangor Daily News on Friday afternoon.

At least two other states with Republican governors, Louisiana and Virginia, also have passed on Race to the Top grants because of the added regulations.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.