A mainstream education is a legal obligation
School districts are required to provide educational programs which are not only individualized to address a disabled child’s unique needs, but are provided in the least restrictive environment. Educating children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment is the ultimate goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the law provides that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities…are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or removal of children with disabilities from the regular education environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of the child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” 20 U.S.C. §1412 (a)(5)(A). In Sacramento City Unified School District v. Rachel H., 14 F. 3d 1398, 1400-1401 (9Th Cir. 1994), the Court of Appeals set forth four factors to consider when determining whether a District has offered a disabled child a placement in the least restrictive environment: (1) the academic benefit of placing the child in a general education setting; (2) the non-academic benefits i.e. socialization; (3) the impact of the child’s placement on a general education classroom; and (4) the cost of full inclusion.
Despite the law’s strong preference that disabled children be educated “to the maximum extent appropriate” with non-disabled peers, districts are generally resistant to full inclusion. Fully including a child with a disability can be challenging and difficult; I recently heard a district administrator describe it as “very labor intensive.” In terms of the “supplementary aids and services” necessary to successfully place a disabled child in a general education classroom, including the possible provision of a full time one-on-one aide, the financial cost to the district can be substantial. It is always cheaper, and easier, for a District to simply place a disabled child in a self-contained special education classroom. It is important for parents to be aware of school districts’ predisposition against full inclusion, particularly when it will result in a significant commitment of staff and money.
Even if a full time general education placement is not appropriate for a child with a disability, the law nevertheless requires that the child be mainstreamed in a general education setting as much as possible. Again, significant amounts of mainstreaming requires a concomitant commitment of resources, and it is for this reason that districts will typically offer mainstreaming during such times as the disabled child would be in the company of nondisabled peers, anyway e.g. recess, lunch, and assemblies. This somewhat standard prescription for mainstreaming is seen in IEPs for children whose levels of impairment range from the severe and profound to the more mildly disabled. With respect to least restrictive environment considerations, it is important for parents to appreciate the strong statutory preference for full inclusion, or mainstreaming, and the fact that the amount of time in a general education setting offered by the district is directly relevant to the overarching question of whether the district has offered an educational program individualized to address the child’s unique needs.