Too bad it wasn’t a race to the bottom — maybe Maine would have had a shot.

Instead, in a contest in which the top 10 finishers won a prize, Maine crossed the finish line in 33rd place, ahead of states like Alabama and Mississippi, but far behind Massachusetts and Rhode Island, our competitors for jobs in the regional economy.

Those New England states will be finalizing plans to spend millions of dollars in federal funds to reform their schools. Maine will go back to the drawing board.

As disappointing as Maine’s dismal finishin this competitive grant program is the reason why our state’s proposal lost out isin this competitive grant program iseven worse.

While Maine’s ideas for what state education officials wanted to do got decent marks (although they were was critiqued for not being ambitious enough) the state’s plan was savaged by the scorers for the lack of commitment to the vision among the people who would be needed to carry it out.

The winning entries had firm support from state education officials, teachers unions, principals, school districts and the public.

But Maine could only show the most lukewarm buy-in, with only 82 out of more than 200 school districts signing up.

Also damaging was a teacher evaluation law, rewritten at the behest of the Maine Education Association, that preserved so much wiggle room that the judges found it unreliable.

WEAK COMMITMENT

The response of the teachers union was not encouraging after the announcement. Rather than a pledge to work harder to make Maine more competitive in the future, MEA President Chris Galgay criticized the Race to the Top program and restated his union’s position that Maine performs well on national standardized tests, implying that we don’t need to reform very much.

Galgay is partly right. But even so, the Race to the Top judges noted that while Maine students do well in national rankings, the scores have been flat for seven years and the gap between the high and low achievers has not appreciably narrowed.

In other words, whatever Maine is doing to improve is not working.

The reasons that Maine should want to reform its education system have been well documented.

While we graduate a high percentage of our kids from high school, we lag behind other states in the region in attainment of higher education.

We know that kids who don’t go to college have fewer employment opportunities and earn less over the course of their lives. They also make a less attractive labor pool for potential economic development.

Our schools are also facing financial challenges. We have a rapidly aging population, shrinking enrollments and crumbling infrastructure. Taxpayers can’t be expected to keep paying for a more expensive system that educates fewer children.

GET OVER IT

So, why can’t we get all of the players together to at least agree that reform is necessary, let alone what the best way to do it would be?

It maybe that school consolidation, which remains vitally important, was so painful for so many districts that superintendents and school boards are reluctant to get on board with any other sweeping reforms. If that’s the case, they should get over it. Kids in school now don’t have years to wait for people to drum up the enthusiasm for making improvements.

Teachers’ unions will have to decide if they are going to continue to cling to the current system and every job in it as long as they can, or if they want to be active participants in a discussion about making a better education system.

That may mean giving up opposition to charter schools and teacher accountability measures. What they may end up with is fewer teachers who are not only held to higher standards but are better compensated for their work.

Race for the Top was a lost opportunity, but it doesn’t have to be a total loss. Educators and policy members should take a hard look at this report card and determine what they are going to do differently next time.