As a nation, we shouldn’t have to choose between defense and education. Yet, in a recent ABC News This Week roundtable, the President’s top political advisor, David Axelrod, criticized cuts to the education budget, suggesting that education spending is our defense budget of the future.

There is absolutely no doubt that education is essential to a strong nation. However, it is the duty of the federal government to fund a strong national defense, and it is up to the states to govern their education systems. So why is spending on those in uniform, especially during a time of war, not defended like education spending?

The defense budget has not experienced the recent growth of the education budget. In fact, the President’s 2011 Pentagon budget only proposes growth of 3.4 percent over last year. (The defense budget has grown since 2001, of course, due largely to a decade of continuous warfare coming off a previous decade of massive defense cuts.) Truly worrisome is that between 2010 and 2015, despite our increasing demands on the military, defense spending will fall from 4.9 percent to 3.6 percent of GDP—even though defense spending is already at an historic low today.

Yet since the 1960s, federal per-pupil education spending has more than tripled.

Furthermore, it is shocking to think education would still be underfunded after it received star treatment in recent bailout bills passed by Congress. The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act included nearly $100 billion for education funding—the largest single increase to the Department of Education’s budget in history-not to mention the additional $10 billion bill Congress passed in August to fund public education jobs. (And let’s not forget that all of this spending has done nothing to increase academic achievement.) At the same time, much needed defense modernization didn’t receive a penny in any bailout bill.

Ironically, the Constitution clearly gives the federal government responsibility to defend the nation, yet says nothing about Washington’s role in education. Instead, states and local government are authorized to govern their school systems. Years of increasingly greater federal control over education has only led to increased bureaucratic red tape for schools and has not improved academic performance. On the other hand, when states are allowed to implement their own reforms, there is evidence of great success.

The federal government must fulfill its duty to defend this nation.  At the same time, the federal government needs to give power back to states to control matters, such as education, that are theirs to oversee. Unless policymakers realize this, our citizens—including its youngest ones—are in danger of defeat.

Co-author Jennifer Marshall.