This is a detailed policy paper about The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) I wrote for a college course.

The Implications of the IDEA and Least Restrictive Environment on the General Education Teacher

(March 2010)

A. Introduction

Many decades of dedicated advocacy has led to the recognition that children with disabilities have civil rights, and has helped to establish our nation’s special education law: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA, a four part federal law, guides and governs states and localities (school districts, public agencies) in protecting the rights of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with special needs, and appropriates partial funding to school districts for early intervention, special education and other related services. In accordance, public schools provide eligible students with specialized support and instruction that best addresses the unique needs of each child in the least restrictive environment (LRE) under the guiding IDEA principal of a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Because of legislation, such as the IDEA, in the year 2006 alone, some 6.5 million children with disabilities have been granted a FAPE in the LRE (National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities, 2010). While the gains in access to an equal education for children with disabilities is highly commendable and largely welcomed, the implementation of the IDEA and LRE mandates has placed a disproportionate amount of responsibility and stress on the general education teacher.

B. Policy Origins and Stakeholders

The current IDEA legislation is built upon a foundation of several historical Federal Acts and government policies formulated and implemented to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. The acts and policies are far reaching, affecting not only the lives of those with special needs, but their families, friends and peers, community members and public agencies. Access to equal education is rooted in the U. S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. In the 1950’s, American education policy in the majority of the U.S. rejected students on the base of race, ability and gender (Hardman & Dawson, 2008). Even into the 1970’s state laws remained exclusionary, with only one in five children with disabilities (e.g., deaf, blind, and mentally retarded) educated in the public schools (U.S. Department of Education, 2007). Until 1975, handicapped children were often excluded from the public schools and “lumped” together in “generic special education classes” in “undesirable, out-of-the-way places like trailers and basements” (Wright & Wright, 2004, p.8).

After the decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, families brought lawsuits against the school districts for the districts’ practices of segregation and/or the refusal to educate children with special needs. Key federal legislation that improved programs and services for the disabled included: The Training of Professional Personnel Act of 1959, The Captioned Films Acts of 1958, The Teachers of the Deaf Act of 1961, and the Handicapped Children’s Early Education Assistance Act of 1968. In 1974 the Equal Education Opportunities Act was passed which granted the rights of all citizens equal access to educational opportunity; this ultimately laid the ground work for The Education of All Handicapped Children Act, Public Law 94-142 (EAHCA) (Wright & Wright 2004), a legislation which specifically supported and protected the rights and individual needs of children with disabilities and their families, and created a detailed set of guidelines to ensure an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (LRE) (Katsiyannis & Yell, 2004). The EAHCA, starting in the early 1980’s, supported The Severely Handicapped Institutes, which was dedicated to effectively integrating children with special needs into schools with their typical peers (U.S. Department of Education, 2007).

Throughout the 1950’s, advocacy and support from family associations, including the Arc, currently “the world’s largest community based organization of and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities,” (The ARC website, 2010) led to the federal government developing practices for children with special needs. Congress launched investigations and made reports such as the following:

The long-range implications of these statistics are that public agencies and taxpayers will spend billions of dollars over the lifetimes of these individuals to maintain such person as dependent and in a minimally acceptable lifestyle. With proper education services, many would be able to become productive citizens, contributing to society instead of being forced to remain burdens. Others, through such services, would increase their independence, thus reducing their dependence on society. (AT 1433) (Wright & Wright, 2004, p. 9).

Congressional findings and reports resulted in increased advocacy and support for children with disabilities and new legislation.

C. Policy Development and Objectives

The IDEA has been amended numerous times since the legislation was first passed and codified by Congress into federal law on November 29, 1975. The IDEA must be reauthorized by Congress every five years. In the 1990 reauthorization, Congress changed the name of EAHCA to IDEA, added autism and traumatic brain injury as categories, and specified the student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) must include transition services. In 1997 Congress added amendments emphasizing placing students in generalized classrooms with non-disabled peers (Yell, Shriner & Katsiyannis, 2006). The 2004 amendments, signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 3, 2004, continued the goals of the IDEA 1997, extended them, and illustrated the influence of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requirements for academic proficiency. Handler (2006) explained: “The IDEA is specifically named no fewer than thirty-eight times in the text of the NCLB” (p.5).

In addition to the NCLB, two other reports influenced the reauthorization of the IDEA04: Rethinking Special Education for a New Century and the report A New Era: Revitalizing Special Education for Children and Their Families. (Yell, Shriner, & Katsiyannis, 2006). These report findings highlighted recommendations for a result-oriented, research-based approach to teaching children with disabilities, with an emphasis placed on student results, prevention, early-identification and aggressive intervention.

The Individuals with Disabilities Act 2004 (IDEA04) “focused on intensely improving student outcomes for all children, particularly minority and children with disabilities” (Holdnack & Weiss, 2006, p. 871), “established high-expectations” for children with special needs to “achieve real educational results” (Daniel, 2008, p.348), “intensified attention on teacher, school and program effectiveness” and “raised the bar on accountability” (Holdnack & Weiss, 2008, p.37).

IDEA04 put a clear focus on increasing educational outcomes for students with disabilities through increased opportunities for education in the general education environment. The IDEA04 provides “extensive detailed substantive and procedural rights and protections” for children with disabilities and their parents (Daniels, 2008, p.347) and requires that to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when 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 (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. 1412 (5)(B)).

D. LRE Interpretation and Controversy

Although the intention behind the IDEA in 1997 and the IDEA04 was to promote inclusion of students with disabilities, neither law includes guidelines to assist educational agencies (Yell & Katsiyannis, 2006). This absence of guidelines is especially true in the interpretation of the least restrictive environment, a concept of Part B of the IDEA, which has been included in the law in its present form since 1975. The general education classroom is considered the least restrictive environment because in this placement a child has an opportunity for interaction with non-disabled peers.

Before a student can be removed from a general education classroom, the LRE mandates a school district must consider whether the student is unable to achieve “satisfactorily” in the classroom. This means, if a student with a disability is placed in a more restrictive setting (specialized classroom) the school district must have already made effort to keep the student in the LRE (regular education classroom) with the use of supplementary aids and services. In other words, a student with disabilities cannot be removed from the LRE and placed in a restrictive environment, unless education in the LRE cannot be accomplished satisfactorily. (Katsiyannis & Yell, 2004;Yell, Katsiyannis & Ryan, 2008). When a child cannot satisfactorily remain in the LRE, the student must still be placed in a setting with the least amount of segregation from his typical peers, and spend as much time as possible integrating with non-disabled schoolmates during lunch, recess and other activities.

When my son with special needs (Asperger’s Syndrome and co-morbid conditions) was mainstreamed into a regular education classroom in 2007, issues arose between the school district personnel and my son’s parents (my husband and myself) over the interpretation of “satisfactory achievement” and the necessary frequency, quality and duration of supplementary aids and services. At the time, my son’s aids and services included occupational therapy, speech, an early-release schedule, modified curriculum and preferential seating. Even with support systems in place, my son was not progressing “satisfactorily.” To meet our son’s needs, we (the parents) advocated for additional aids and services, such as a one-on-one paraprofessional aide (private assistant) and summer tutoring, while the district argued for moving our son to a more restrictive setting (special day class or specialized school).

Not surprisingly, issues surrounding the LRE, including achievement, aids and services, continue to be the most controversial and often the most litigated (Katsiyannis & Yell, 2004). School districts must rely on the circuit court decisions for guidance with the LRE mandates, even though the circuit courts interpret the meaning of the LRE differently from state-to-state. “Since the lower courts have only the general language of the IDEA, the result has been the adoption of a variety of tests among the federal circuits (Howard, 2004, para. 6). The tests are imprecise, vary in substance, and fail to establish a specific uniform process for LRE (Howard, 2004; Pally, 2006). The result is a domino effect, with the Supreme Court as the lead domino; for although the IDEA is a federal law, the Supreme Court has not specifically addressed the issues of LRE, and reliance on judicial legislation at the state-level has led to variations in the interpretation of LRE, resulting in school districts using differing LRE guidelines.

E. Special Education Population and Regular Education Teacher Training

A large percentage of students with disabilities are enrolled in regular school and general classrooms under the supervision and care of a regular education teacher for at least a portion of the school day. According to the US Department of Education, “in 2006, 95 percent of students 6 to 21 years old served under IDEA were enrolled in regular school, 3 percent were served in a separate school for students with disabilities, 1 percent were placed in regular private schools by their parents, and 0.4 percent were served in each of the following environments: separate residential facility; homebound or hospital; a correctional facility” (IES, 2009) and “approximately half of all students with disabilities in 2004–05 spent 80 percent or more of their day in a general classroom” (IES, 2007). Between 2006 and 2007 some 6.7 million children and youth (ages 3-21) received IDEA services (IES, 2009).

Though there is a large influx of students with special needs placed in the general education environment, many regular classroom teachers are unprepared and not trained in special education teaching methods. Most teaching preparation courses train special education and general education teachers in separate programs; as a result, there is limited opportunity for the regular education teachers to collaborate or gain strategies from the special education teachers at the college level.

Quality special education should involve “high-quality intensive professional development for all personnel” who work with children with disabilities (Wright & Wright, 2004, p.21). Yet, with increasing state budget cuts to school districts, funding for professional development and other training opportunities at the site-level are limited. Repeatedly, teachers in regular education settings are finding themselves without training. Lack of adequate prepared personnel does not relieve a school district’s obligation to provide the LRE. Thus, children are placed in LRE with teachers who know little about a child’s disability and who have limited techniques to assist the child toward academic success.

Methods that would benefit a child with special needs might include differential instruction, scaffolding, cooperative learning, and high-quality content specific strategies (Wehmeyer, 2006). Teachers would benefit from inservices on special needs involving conflict-resolution, behavioral modification, IDEA legislation, and teaching strategies geared towards children with disabilities.

School administrators should provide ongoing support for inclusion, including resources, services, materials and sustained professional development (Leyser, 2006). Handler (2006) points out that educators cannot be expected to initiate the changes necessary to increase the success for students with disabilities and that changes must occur at the administrative and professional levels. Dia Paola (2004) argues there is no evidence that inclusive methods can be effectively incorporated into a school without direct administrative guidance and intervention.

When teachers aren’t adequately trained in the arena of special education and mainstreaming, parents and school personnel can advocate for quality training and support resources. A plethora of information regarding children with special needs and other disability education resources are readily available. School district administrators need not look further than their local communities. Teachers can gain helpful knowledge from books, dvds, previously trained staff members, district and site-based inservices, conferences, support groups, staff meetings, and the like. When funds are limited, educational leaders can work together to find alternative solutions such as appealing to public libraries to purchase material, contacting local media, giving speeches about disability awareness to charitable organizations, and working together with community and government agencies, e.g. in Northern California: SELPA, Warmline, FEAT, Rowell Family Empowerment, and Area Board III.

When my son with special needs was mainstreamed into a public school second grade classroom, his general education teacher and paraprofessional aide both had no training in the field of autism. According to the district superintendent and principal of the school, no funding was available for training. It wasn’t until I researched the IDEA, documented legislation, contacted support agencies, sent letters to the school district, created a handout on children with disabilities, and started to speak to community organizations, that the district personnel was willing to establish more consistent and available special education training for school staff, adopt a research-based curriculum for handwriting, and collect special educational resources for the school staff library. With time and effort positive changes can be made.

F. Time, Collaboration and Paraprofessionals

Besides training and resources in the field of special education, regular education teachers require time and collaboration to bring about effective academic programs in their classroom for children with disabilities in the LRE. The school is responsible for identifying poor academic process, prevention, treatment, and accommodations. Teachers need allotted time to identify, document, discuss, and review students’ behaviors, needs, strengths and progress, especially when establishing and reviewing IEP goals and considering the range of supplemental services.

Collaboration is necessary to share joint responsibility and accountability with school personnel, to establish schedules, engage in problem solving and to share and collect educational practices and methodologies. Under the mandates of LRE “unprecedented levels of collaboration between professionals and agencies at all levels” must occur to achieve the goals of improved educational outcomes (Handler, 2006). Many dimensions are involved in effective planning for a child with special needs. School personnel must consider several choices, such as effective instructional strategies, social/behavioral techniques, modifications and arrangement of the classroom environment, lesson methodology, evaluation of student achievement, curriculum and technological adaptations and management strategies. Curriculum adaptations alone can be time-consuming. Dukes and Lamar-Dukes (2009) contend “one of the most contentious issues surrounding inclusive education is the modification or changing of the general education” (p.17). For example, students with mental retardation need print-based information presented with graphics, free from clutter, with key facts highlighted. Other curriculum augmentations include chunking, mnemonic strategies, and student-directed learning techniques (Wehmeyer, 2006).

When a child with a disability is assigned an untrained paraprofessional to assist him in the general classroom, additional responsibility is placed on the general teacher. Legally, the paraprofessional cannot be the person responsible for preparing the academic instruction. Therefore, the general teacher must plan all instructional activities and evaluate the achievement of the students who work with the paraprofessional. (Yell, Shriner & Katsiyannis, 2006). In such cases, the general teacher is responsible for the majority of the paraprofessional’s work assignments, training and support.

Because the IDEA legislation provides little information in regards to paraprofessional aides, some school districts do not have regulations, guidelines or a job description in place for the position of a paraprofessional. In some cases, districts do not even advertise for the paraprofessional job, and alternatively shuffle existing personnel, such as regular classroom aides, lunch and recess supervisors, and parent volunteers into the position of a paraprofessional aide, for a short period of time.

My son with special needs had three different substitute paraprofessionals in a three week period. This type of inconsistency and lack of foresight in the hiring of educational staff, not only causes instability for the child with special needs, but also adds increased stress to the classroom teacher who is busily attempting to assimilate a new person to the classroom setting. Having few mandates and rules in place, when filling the vacant position of a paraprofessional aide, also sends a direct message to the school community that the job of a paraprofessional is not a position to be taken seriously, nor an endeavor considered important enough for the investment of time, resources and forethought. Without an adequate paraprofessional aide job description set in place, I have witnessed firsthand how a paraprofessional in the classroom, (following the direction of a teacher), will spend time accomplishing mundane tasks, (e.g., decorating bulletin boards, correcting whole class work, walking students to lunchroom, cleaning), instead of directly working with the child with special needs (e.g., reviewing concepts, practicing social skills, and collaborating with support personnel). In this case, the regular teacher may benefit, but at the expense of the education of the child with special needs.

G. Child’s Inappropriate Behavior and Parental Contact

Training, resources, collaboration with school personnel and paraprofessional assistance, all require a regular classroom teacher’s time and energy, which can lead to a teacher feeling emotional stress and exhaustion. Another often overlooked area of concern, in regards to a teacher’s wellbeing, is the inappropriate behavior a child with special needs can exhibit in the classroom setting. While not all children with disabilities have behavioral concerns, with the increasing population of children being diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, more and more children with behavioral challenges are being mainstreamed into the regular education setting. Based on circuit courts’ decisions, if a student with a disability is placed in a regular education setting and he/she is disruptive to the point where his/her behavior is interfering with other students in the general education classroom, as well as the teacher’s ability to instruct other students, then the district can argue the needs of the disabled child are not being met (Howard, 2004).

However, the IDEA provides no guidance in determining when problem behavior reaches the level of interfering with learning (Katsiyannis & Yell, 2004). Thus the behavior could feasibly continue without reprieve until the school established guidelines for the removal of the child from the classroom or effective behavioral strategies are implemented. Regardless, the disruptiveness of a student with disabilities can cause stress to the regular classroom teacher, as he struggles to find solutions, assist the child, and maintain the attention of the other students.

Another added stress to the general education teacher, when implementing the LRE under the 2004 IDEA, is the teacher’s relationship with the family of a child with special needs. Parents may insist on observing and/or documenting their child’s behavior and performance at school. Parents might also request to be a volunteer in the classroom. While visiting the general classroom, parents might expect the teacher to be well-trained in the field of their child’s special needs or disability. Lack of training can lead to a teacher feeling unprepared, inadequate and challenged. For parents, one of the most important benefits of their child being placed in the LRE is the social-emotional area: socialization, friendship development, enhanced self-esteem, and increased understanding of peers. Parents’ other top concerns include instruction, academic progress, adequate support services, lack of professional knowledge, skills, time and training (Leyser, 2006). If a parent perceives that a teacher or the school district is not meeting her child’s educational needs, the parent-teacher relationship may become estranged.

H. Policy Opposition

Main opposition of the IDEA and LRE mandates revolve around districts meeting the financial needs of children with disabilities. Parents with limited English proficiency and/or low-income families with limited access to health insurance, support agencies and other resources are less likely to hold a district accountable for services than a middle-class family. Some affluent parents can afford expensive medical testing and evaluations outside of the school district; they are also the people able to afford lawyers to uphold the district to the IDEA. Two students within the same school district, with similar special needs, could conceivably receive entirely different supplementary aids and services, based on the parents’ abilities to advocate and the parents’ available financial resources.

More times than not, school districts do not have the financial resources to implement all the provisions required under LRE (Pauly, 2006). According to the U.S. Department of Education, historically education agencies have struggled to meet the minimal education needs of children with disabilities (IDEA Funding Coalition, 2006). “In order to be eligible to receive funds under Part B of IDEA, States must, among other conditions, assure that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is made available to all children with specified disabilities in mandated age ranges” (U.S. Department of Education, 1994). Since many requirements of the IDEA and FAPE are also required under The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, currently all fifty states choose to abide by the IDEA regulations, and as a result receive federal funding. Yet, despite the federal government’s original intention of paying up to 40% of the IDEA implementation costs, federal funding remains significantly lower than promised, reaching as low as 8% (IDEA Funding Coalition, 2006). Most monies for IDEA implementation come from the state level. Each state allocates funds differently.

Without enough special education funding, a teacher might find herself in the middle of a tug-of-war, with the parents of a special needs child demanding costly interventions on one side and district personnel arguing for alternative, cost-saving measures on the other end. Although, legally, the district is not advised to discuss the financial limitations of the district, undoubtedly, parent advocates and school personnel know that money is often at the heart of a debate over needed supplementary aids and services. Additional opposition arises when parents of typical children voice concerns over the higher percentage of district expenditures allocated to a child with a disability placed in the LRE. The issue of money can create an uncomfortable climate for all parties involved, especially the teacher, whose primary goal is to educate and assist the child within the best means possible.

I. Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that with the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act there has been a great advancement in the ability for children with disabilities to gain access to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. As a result of advocacy and federal legislation, an entire generation has been integrated with their peers, instead of alienated and ostracized. Society as a whole has benefited from the positive relationship established between people with disabilities and the mainstream public. Today, children with special needs will have more opportunities to grow into secure adults capable of contributing and functioning in an environment of equability and understanding. Positive strides have been made. Yet, along the way of continuing to implement and uphold the IDEA legislation and LRE, the primary burden of educating children with special needs has been placed on the general education teacher. Educators, school communities and governing bodies must gain a greater understanding of the implications of the LRE on the classroom teacher, and advocate for positive change. Together, we must question how well the general education teacher is able to provide a high-quality education for the child with special needs in the LRE when she has inadequate training and support, and little time for collaboration and planning. To support the school districts and teachers, IDEA funds should be supplied at the federal level far beyond current standards, and guidelines should be established nationwide in interpretation and regulating the LRE mandates. In unity, we can alleviate the general education teacher’s burden and provide the keys to success, ultimately resulting in the deserving achievement and success of students with special needs. References

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