In 2004, the United States Congress reauthorized the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is the Federal law that mandates that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) be provided for individuals with disabilities, ages 6-21.
IDEA requires that educational services to individuals with disabilities be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE), meaning the most appropriate environment based on the individual’s unique learning needs. The law requires that individuals with disabilities must be educated to the maximum extent appropriate with individuals who are nondisabled. The removal of an individual from the regular education environment occurs 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.
Services provided under Part C of IDEA, the Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities program, serving ages birth to 3, must be provided in natural environments. This includes the home and community settings in which children without disabilities participate. The 2004 law amended this provision to recognize that there may be instances when a child’s individualized family service plan cannot be implemented satisfactorily in the natural environment. In these instances, the child’s parents and the other members of the individualized family service plan team will together make this determination and then identify the most appropriate setting in which early intervention services can be provided. The Preschool Grants section of the law, providing services for preschool children ages 3-5, places emphasis for LRE on how the disability affects the child’s participation in appropriate activities.
The law requires each public agency to ensure that a continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities for special education and related services. The continuum provides a range of services to meet the unique learning needs of each individual. It includes instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions.
In determining the individual’s educational placement, each public agency shall ensure that the placement decision is made by a group of persons, including the parents, and other persons knowledgeable about the individual, the meaning of the evaluation data, and the placement options in conformity with the law’s LRE provisions. The individual’s placement is determined at least annually, is based on the individual education plan (IEP), and is as close as possible to the individual’s home.
Unless the individual’s IEP requires some other arrangement, the individual is educated in the school that he or she would attend if non-disabled. In selecting the LRE, consideration is given to any potential harmful effect on the individual or the quality of services that he or she needs. An individual with a disability is not removed from education in an age-appropriate regular classroom solely because of needed modifications in the general curriculum.
The principle of LRE is intended to ensure that an individual with a disability is served in a setting where he or she can be educated successfully. Even though IDEA does not mandate regular class placement for every disabled individual by the placement team, IDEA does presume that the first placement option considered is the school the individual would attend if he or she were not disabled. The full range of supplemental aids and services that if provided would facilitate the individuals placement in the regular education setting must be considered before an individual can be placed outside the regular classroom. However, individuals need not fail in the regular classroom before another placement can be considered.
In all cases, placement decisions must be individually determined on the basis of each individual’s abilities and needs, and not solely on factors such as category of disability, significance of disability, availability of special education and related services, configuration of the service delivery system, availability of space, or administrative convenience. It is each individual’s IEP that forms the basis for the placement decision. Most importantly, parents have the right to be members of the group that decides the educational placement of the child.