Maine did not fare well last time it applied for funds from Race to the Top, a federal competitive grant program designed to jump-start school reform efforts.

That hasn’t stopped state education officials from trying again, and maybe they learned something that will help this time.

This round of the program will distribute $500 million to states that are ready to beef up their early childhood education programs.

Gov. LePage has said he is wary about accepting federal funds with strings attached, but that should not bother him in this case.

This money is geared toward getting states to do what Maine has already identified as a priority. A successful grant here would attract much-needed funding to do things that we should be doing anyway.

For several years, experts have been telling us that the only way to change serious problems with public education is to begin working with children at a younger age. Pernicious issues like adolescent drug abuse, low middle school reading scores and high school dropout rates can be traced back to poor starts in the years even before school begins.

Elementary level teachers have observed that waiting until kindergarten is too late to learn that reading can be a source of pleasure. Children who are not taught that at home may never learn.

State and federal officials are right to focus on early childhood. This is a race Maine should keep trying to win.