The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal education laws which requires public school districts to provide students with disabilities with a free and appropriate education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE). LRE, as defined in IDEA, is the environment in which, "to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities are educated with children who are not disabled" (U. S. Congress, 2004, SEC. 607, p. 118, STAT. 2660).
In the original language of IDEA, LRE was treated as a somewhat subjective term that varied according to the needs of the child and the policies of the local school district. For example, in the case of a child with severe developmental disabilities, the LRE might be determined to be a self-contained special education classroom with very little interaction with non-disabled students; in the case of a child with a moderate learning disability or some other, less severe, disability, the LRE may be the more inclusive environment of the regular classroom with appropriate accommodations and support services.
Under the original provisions of IDEA, LRE for an individual student was to be determined by a team that consisted of the special education student's parents, teachers who work with the child, and other professionals who worked together to develop the student's individual educational program (IEP); hence, the "individual" nature of the IEP. Today, special education provides a continuum of educational services that range from more to less restrictive. In the most restrictive setting, educational services are delivered ina self-contained classroom with little or no interaction with non-disabled students.
At the other end of the special education continuum, students with learning disabilities or other handicaps are enrolled in regular education classes and have the assistance of an aide and/or modifications to the curriculum. Placement practices vary widely across school districts (Burstein, Cabello, Sears, Spagna, & Wilcoxen, 2004). In court rulings, LRE has been generally interpreted as being integrated into the general population as much as possible, with the trend leaning towards greater inclusion of special education students (Handler, 2003).
Since the mid 1980s, the ability of education professionals to determine the LRE for an individual student child has been increasingly restricted through court rulings and legal mandates that override or circumvent the authority of the school. Disagreements between schools and parents about where and how students with special needs should be taught has made special education one of the most litigious areas of school law (Herbst & Katsiyannis, 2004).
Legal actions involving special education students tend to be initiated by parents, many of whom have strong feelings about having their child placed in the regular classroom with non-disabled students. School administrators who wish to avoid potential lawsuits may feel restricted in their placement options for special education students. Consequently, placement decisions may reflect the school's desire to avoid litigation more than they reflect the school's opinion about what might be in the best educational interests of the child and other students.
While these more inclusive placements may satisfy the parents' desire to have their child included in the regular classroom with non-disabled students, special education students with emotional/behavioral disorders (EBD), learning disabilities (LD), or other special needs present multiple challenges to the regular classroom teacher who may not feel that he or she has been adequately prepared to work with special populations.
Many regular classroom teachers have reported feelings of inadequacy and frustration about their ability to address the educational needs of their special education students while trying to teach other students (Shade & Stewart, 2001). In many cases, these feelings affect teachers' attitudes towards their special education students and their ability to perform in the classroom. Purpose of this paper The purpose of this paper is to examine how the various legal interpretations of IDEA and LRE have affected school policies and practices for the placement of special education students.
To what extent has local or even state control of public schools been usurped by legislation and litigation? Finally, this paper will seek to find ways for schools, parents, and other stakeholders to resolve disagreements at the local level regarding the educational placement and inclusion of students with special needs. Background Special education law Historically, education in the United States has been under the jurisdiction of the individual states and local school districts.
This philosophy has its roots in the Tenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which states that "the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people. " Because education is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, the power to operate schools has been reserved for the states. This does not mean, however, that schools are not bound by the Constitution.
Constitutional issues that affect schools include the First Amendment protections of free speech, the right to assemble, and religious issues. The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure and carries with it an implied right to privacy. The Fourteenth Amendment includes the right to due process and equal protection under the law (U. S. Constitution). Each of these amendments has had a significant effect on education policy and on how schools are administered.
In the absence of federal laws pertaining to education, much of current education law has been shaped by court rulings. In the cases of school segregation and special education, court rulings proceeded and influenced laws that would eventually be passed by Congress. The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, was cited in the landmark anti-school segregation decision of Brown v. Board of Education. Although there was no specific federal law barring discrimination in schools, the Supreme Court ruled that the practice of school segregation was unconstitutional.
The Fourteenth Amendment was also cited in Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia (1972) and in Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth, federal district court cases that involved the right of children with special education at no cost to the parents (Daugherty, 2001, p. 3). As in Brown had done nearly 20 years before, Mills and PARC anticipated and contributed to federal education laws.