Teachers unions, school district officials, and lawmakers have all weighed in on New York State’s Race to the Top application with varying degrees of skepticism and enthusiasm, but few have given any thought to the legal issues behind the experiment.

Last night, students at Columbia Law School held a panel discussion on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s competitive grant program that, in its first round, will award several states hundreds of millions of dollars to adopt the Obama administration’s education policies. The question put before the panel is one any federal initiative like Race to the Top is apt to bring up: Is this experiment stepping too heavily on states’ policy toes?

The panelists included Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Deborah Meier, a columnist for Education Week, James Liebman, a law school professor and the NYC Department of Education’s former accountability chief, Richard Iannuzzi, president of the state teachers union, and Dan Weisberg, a vice president at The New Teacher Project.

Some, like Liebman, argued that for too long, the federal government has been powerless over states’ education policies because it doles out so little of what school districts spend. Much of that changed when the stimulus package arrived and the size of Duncan’s budget suddenly increased.

“The federal government could say to a school that’s failing all of its African American children, go ahead, we’ll keep funding you, or we’re going to take the money away completely,” Liebman said.

“Now they’re trying to find a way to influence policy where they have limited tools,” he said.

For Liebman, Race to the Top is part of Duncan’s responsibility to see that all schools are giving students a basic civil right: a good education.

Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers, said that the problem with Race to the Top is not its goals, but the cut-throat nature of the competition.

At a time when states are desperate for money and are laying off teachers, is it fair to heavily incentivize the adoption federal education policies with a hefty grant, he asked.

“States are basically surrendering their right to create education policy to the federal government because of the need to chase those dollars,” Iannuzzi said.

Iannuzzi said that New York State’s own application prioritized ways of removing bad teachers from the classroom and expanding merit pay over other policies that would improve the effectiveness of teachers already in the system.

“When I asked about this, the answer the Commissioner [David Steiner] gave me is: ‘I don’t have the money to do the rest of it. This is the only part I could do. So if I do this part, maybe my application does better,'” Iannuzzi said. “What’s driving policy isn’t the totality that the commissioner will admit is the best.”

Meier of Education Week said she was also concerned about the race part of Race to the Top.

“I think that at a time in history when our regular public schools are losing more and more of their funds, it’s an odd phenomena to be giving rewards for a competition between people not to get better schools, but for the purpose of trying to get more money,” Meier said.

Responding to the criticism that Race to the Top may advance a handful of states but leave the rest as they are now, Weisberg of The New Teacher Project — a nonprofit group founded by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — said the competition’s winners would become “proof points,” for other states to model.

“That should create the leverage on places that haven’t joined this race to duplicate and replicate what’s going on,” he said.