Maine was likely in a strong position to claim a multimillion-dollar federal award to pay for improvements to its patchwork of early learning programs. But, infuriatingly, the state snubbed a chance to invest heavily in its children at a time of life when it matters most.

The Maine departments of Education and Health and Human Services this fall decided against applying for a slice of $280 million available in a third round of the federal Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge. Some 16 states and Washington, D.C., meanwhile, jumped at the opportunity and submitted applications to improve programs for their youngest, most high-needs residents.

It’s discouraging the state would pass up an opportunity to invest in its youngest residents at an age when the return on investment is highest. It’s widely acknowledged that investment in high-quality early childhood education reaps returns later in life in the form of reduced spending on special education, higher levels of employment and higher earnings, and lower levels of crime and costly incarceration.

Through an investment lens, Maine has turned up its nose at a common-sense strategy.

What makes this decision even more discouraging is that Maine probably had a good shot of receiving funds in this round of Race to the Top, if only it had applied.

The state’s first try at Race to the Top in 2010, in a competition that emphasized a variety of K-12 education reforms, was far from successful. Maine placed 33rd among the 36 states competing for a slice of $3.4 billion.

The following year, the state made a much better showing when it submitted an application for the first round of the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge. It came up short, but Maine placed 17th, ahead of about half the 35 states that applied and Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

The federal government at first chose the nine highest-scoring states for awards. Then last year it funded the applications of the next five highest-scoring states. To date, the top 14 applicants have received multimillion-dollar awards. Among the states that applied but did not receive funds, Maine was third in line.

The third round of the early learning challenge doesn’t rely on the same applications submitted by states in 2011. But the competition’s criteria have barely changed. Maine could have revised its plan, incorporated feedback from the 2011 competition judges, and likely submitted an application just as strong, if not stronger, than its first.

New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the two states that stood ahead of Maine in line for awards based on the first two rounds of the competition, are both participating in the third round.

Unfortunately, the state’s decision not to apply for Race to the Top early learning funds fits a disturbing trend in which state and federal policymakers have deemphasized investment during a child’s earliest years.

It also fits recent rhetoric from Gov. Paul LePage — which intensified last month during the federal government shutdown — in which the governor has said the state should not rely on federal funding. Regarding Race to the Top, Department of Education spokeswoman Samantha Warren said state officials didn’t want to depend on “unreliable” one-time federal funds.

LePage has used a similar argument to back up his similarly damaging position against accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid for low-income residents.

But in 2011, Maine’s Race to the Top applicationwhich LePage signed — emphasized spending federal funds on one-time investments in early learning so as not to run into questions of program sustainability later on.

The application proposed developing new quality standards for early learning and child-care programs; a push to get more of those programs to participate in a quality rating system so parents would know where their children’s pre-school or child-care center stood; the installation of child seats in school buses to eliminate the transportation barrier for rural, low-income children; and the formation of a new bachelor’s degree program for early childhood educators specializing in teaching students who don’t speak English as their native language.

The state has forged ahead with some parts of the work it proposed in the Race to the Top application. But the work is proceeding more slowly without the infusion of federal funds.

If state officials say they’re committed to the work anyway, we’re dumbfounded by the decision not to seek federal funds to pay for it.