There was once a time when the IDEA was updated every five years. There were opportunities to clarify areas and improve its focus. However, with the stagnation of the federal bureaucracy the cogs ground to a halt. The new ESSA is only 10 years overdue and the last update of IDEA was in 2004. So the time is past due to update IDEA and one area where an update could help is with LRE and the Continuum of Alternative Services. These two sections in tandem have been fundamental cornerstones to the IDEA since its inception over forty years ago.
The Continuum section basically requires school systems to have a continuum of alternative placements (Continuum) available to meet the needs of children with disabilities for special education, including instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions); and have provisions for supplementary services (such as resource room or itinerant instruction) available in conjunction with regular class placement.
The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) section fundamentally requires school systems to educate children with disabilities with children who are nondisabled to the maximum extent appropriate (emphasis added); and to remove children with disabilities from the regular educational environment only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
The Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) section basically requires schools to have appropriate public education at no cost to all eligible children with disabilities.
As is too often mistaken, the requirements do not mandate “full or total inclusion” of all children with disabilities in general education classes and it is worth noting that removal to a higher level on the Continuum is required when instruction in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
In her blog Susan Bon points out that far too often there is confusion on how to balance the LRE and FAPE requirements. She argues that the focus on achieving education satisfactorily in the regular classroom has been too often relegated to a secondary status given the primary emphasis on inclusion as the sole means to achieve education in the regular educational environment to the maximum extent appropriate.
She recommends a process of determining educational placements for students with disabilities. She proposes that the IEP Team should:
• Determine the LRE so as to maintain educational benefit as the primary factor, consistent with FAPE standards.
• Document and consider a range of special and general education placements, along with supplementary and related services consistent with the existing continuum and services doctrines.
• Balance the mainstreaming preference with the “reality that general education is not suitable for all disabled students.”
• Recognize the important distinction between educational and non-academic benefits and assess the benefits of both.
• Consider the effect on the general education classroom environment.
The suggested language would help the IEP team to determine the appropriate least restrictive placement giving due consideration to both instruction effectiveness and preference for LRE. It would help clarify how FAPE, the Continuum, and LRE each complement each other.
Bon, S. (2016). Reclaiming the LRE Debate from the Courts. Retrieved on August 3, 2016 from www.aasa.org/idea-blog.aspx?id=39794&blogid=84005 .
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004) 34 CFR §300. Retrieved on August 2, 2016 at http://idea.ed.gov/explore/view/p/,root,regs,300 .