The Maine Education Association, the state’s teachers union, feels that it gets a bad rap.

The union has been blamed, in this space and by others, for using its political clout to block reforms that would be good for Maine students and their families. The latest charge is that it is standing in the way of Maine’s participation in the competitive grant program known as Race to the Top, which makes federal money available to school districts that want to embrace school reform.

The union has a chance to prove the critics wrong. It has put itself in a crucial role on a crucial issue that will determine not only how Maine fares in Race to the Top, but how well it can deliver education.

A last-minute amendment to a bill that would change state law to allow measures of student progress to be considered in teacher and principal evaluations created a panel that would develop evaluation models for school districts to use. Districts would not be able to use any evaluation models not approved by the panel, and the MEA has a seat on the panel.

Will the union use its position to block the development of plans that would allow student progress to become one measure of a teacher’s performance? Or will it take the opportunity to help develop a fair process from which all sides can benefit?

Its choice is crucial, and not just for Race to the Top funding. The relationship between a teacher and student is the most important part of the system, and teachers should be able to improve by knowing what works and what doesn’t. This could be one of several tools that would make Maine teachers and schools better.

Union officials say they have no intention to interfere with the progress, but they want to make sure that the interests of their members are represented. They say a single state panel is the only way for them to have that input, because once the law is changed, individual bargaining units would not be able to make changes.

If any Maine districts are going to get Race to the Top funds, this kind of cooperation will be necessary. The two states that have so far received funding, Tennessee and Delaware, were lauded for, among other things, the close cooperation between the schools and their unions.

The MEA may indeed be getting a bad rap.

Participation on this evaluation panel would be a good place to show that its reputation is undeserved.