I am a parent of a child with special needs and because of her special needs she is in the special education system. If you have never had a child in special education or worked in special education as a career you will not fully appreciate the complexity of the system. The first time it really hit me that there are two very distinct yet intertwined education systems was the night we went to our son’s Kindergarten conference and our daughter’s Preschool conference. We first went to our son’s conference and it was a “normal” conference with just us and the teacher in attendance. We just talked about the normal things that everyone one is used to discussing and it was over in fifteen minutes. Once we were done we left and went to our daughter’s conference and upon arrival I was shocked at the difference. Unlike our son’s conference where we met in the classroom for her conference we were meeting in conference room around a large table and there were over ten people in the room. I would later find out that in the special education world this is known as an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) meeting and they are vastly different than “normal” conferences. This was my first experience with the world of special education and just a taste of the complexity that it involves. Parents, teachers, and school administration talk about “inclusion” during meetings but often we do not get to deep into it because of time constraints and because we assume everyone has the same understanding we do.

How You Think About Inclusion Depends On Your Values

Inclusion is a hotly debated concept in education because it relates to both educational and social values, as well as the student’s sense of individual worth. With inclusion as with any controversial topic there are those that hold vastly different views. Some skeptics view it as a policy that incorrectly thinks inclusion will save school districts money by having to have fewer special education teachers. They also think that trying to force inclusion on all special education students is discriminatory just like forcing them all into special education classes would be. On the other side of the coin there are those that believe all kids belong in regular education class rooms and that teachers should be able to meet the needs of all students regardless of what the needs are. The majority of teachers and parents fall somewhere in between these opposing views and often wonder if inclusion is legally required and question what schools and their staff must do to meet the needs of students in special education.

The following definitions are provided by Research Bulletin Number 11, 1993, from Phi Delta Kappa’s Center for Evaluation, Development, and Research.

Mainstreaming: This term has generally been used to refer to the selective placement of special education students in one or more “regular” education classes. Mainstreaming proponents generally assume that a student must “earn” his or her opportunity to be mainstreamed through the ability to “keep up” with the work assigned by the teacher to the other students in the class. This concept is closely linked to traditional forms of special education service delivery.

Inclusion: This term is used to refer to the commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students).

Full Inclusion: This term is primarily used to refer to the belief that instructional practices and technological supports are presently available to accommodate all students in the schools and classrooms they would otherwise attend if not disabled. Proponents of full inclusion tend to encourage that special education services generally be delivered in the form of training and technical assistance to “regular” classroom teachers.

Professional organizations such as the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) feel that inclusion is important enough to draft a position statement which includes the following excerpt. “NASP, in its continuing commitment to promote more effective educational programs for all students, advocates the development of inclusive programs for students with disabilities….. NASP believes that carefully designed inclusive programs individualized to meet the needs of students with disabilities represent a viable and legitimate option on the special education continuum that must be examined for any student who requires special education” (“Position Statement on Inclusive Programs for Students With Disabilities,” n.d).

On November 19, 1975, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, also known as The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. Initially, the law focused on ensuring that children with disabilities had access to an education and due process of law. Congress included an elaborate system of legal checks and balances called “procedural safeguards” that are designed to protect the rights of children and their parents. Congress has amended and renamed the special education law several times since 1975. On December 3, 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was amended again. The reauthorized statute is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 and is known as IDEA 2004. The first purpose of IDEA 2004 is “To ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living” (20 U.S.C § 1400 (d) (1)). The second purpose is: “To ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected” (20 U.S.C § 1400 (d) (1)).

No Inclusion in IDEA, Only LRE

The interesting part of this discussion starts when you discover that inclusion is not listed in the statute or the regulations. Instead the closest thing to inclusion is called Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) and it is described in the statute as follows: “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 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 of a 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)). Lastly it describes parental involvement in the placement decisions. “Each local educational agency or State educational agency shall ensure that the parents of each child with a disability are members of any group that makes decisions on the educational placement of their child” (20 U.S.C § 1414 (e)). To further complicate inclusion and LRE the state also has laws that regulate special education and then the district may have special education policies as well.

I think this statute leaves many things open to administrative discretion. The first place that allows some administrative discretion is found in the words “To the maximum extent appropriate” since they are not concrete words that are going to mean the same thing to everyone. What I think is the maximum extent appropriate can mean a totally different thing to you. To one person it is appropriate to place the child in a regular class room but to another it would be appropriate to place them in a fully contained special education classroom. Since it costs more money to have a self contained classroom because of the additional space it takes up along with the lower staff to student ratio a school district may be motivated to have more kids in the regular education classroom.

The second place it allows some administrative discretion is found in the words “achieved satisfactorily” since once again they are not concrete words that are going to mean the same thing to everyone. It could mean they are not able to meet the  requirements of No Child Left Behind or it could mean they do not meet the academic requirements of the district or their behavior does not allow them or the other students to learn.

The third place it allows some administrative discretion is found in the words “the nature or severity of the disability of a child” since as I have stated twice before the words mean different things to different people. For some parents they have a hard time talking about their child having a disability so they may not want to hear that it plays a role in the child’s placement in school. Sometimes people will generalize what they have witnessed about one child on the whole population of children with the same diagnosis. For example if they have seen a child diagnosed with autism that has not been able to function in a regular classroom they may assume the next child that comes along with the same diagnosis will not function in that setting as well.

The final place I think it allows some administrative discretion is found in the words “use of supplementary aids and services” as it does not give a list of specific aids or services nor does it describe how many you need to try or for what length they should be tried before you determine it is not going to work. When picking aids and services people will pick the ones they have tried on other kids which makes sense but not all kids will react the same way to things. The more things you try the longer it will take to figure out what works and what does not work so you are inclined to try out fewer things to get it done faster. Another thing that happens is you start a child off a few minutes in a regular classroom and then see how that goes. If it goes well you will increase the amount of time or if it goes badly you may try something else or reduce the time.

Photo Adapted from falcon0125

This is Part One in a series of two. You can read Part Two here. What do you think? Is inclusion a right protected by the law? Tell us in the comments section below!