Is LRE more or less restrictive?
Federal and state law require that children with disabilities be served in the least restrictive environment (LRE). The legal definition of this is that to the “maximum extent appropriate” a child with disabilities should be educated with non-disabled peers. The thinking behind this requirement is that being with plain kids will be advantageous to students with disabilities for several reasons.
The major reason for the benefit as it is described, is that children with special needs will be exposed to the general education curriculum. The term “exposed” sounds like the general ed curriculum is a disease. But it also reflects some understanding of just how much benefit the child will get from that curriculum. “Exposure” does not mean the child with special needs will benefit from the general ed curriculum just that he or she will be present when the teacher presents it.
Another benefit for LRE is supposed to be that kids with disabilities will learn social skills from being with non-disabled kids. They will also develop friendships with these children and in that way become fully included in the mainstream of social life. They may also be targeted and bullied because they are different from the plain kids but we won't go there.
Many parents have embraced these benefits for their children. There have been numerous instances when parents have gone to a due process hearing or court to ensure the placement of their children in the general ed classroom even when the school system has opted for what, according to the law, is a more restrictive placement.
If we get more granular with the term “restrictive”, it is essential to ask restrictive for whom?
First the general ed curriculum. The purpose of any curriculum is to prepare a student for life after school so that the adult coming out of school can be a full participant in society. It is not clear how exposure to algebra II or to writing a research paper is going to give a young adult with disabilities the skills needed to pursue a job or participate in a democracy and that is assuming the child actually becomes competent in the content.
The notion that kids with disabilities will be accepted as full social peers by the plain kids is a wonderful pipe dream. When any of us looks at our own social circle we discover that the circle looks a lot like the folks we see in the mirror each morning. As the old folks used to say, “birds of a feather flock together” and indeed they do.
So how exactly how are the so called “restrictive” placements restrictive to kids with disabilities. They get the curriculum that is appropriate to their post-secondary needs and they do make friends with the other birds in the so-called restrictive placements. These friendships tend to last for many years, well into adulthood.
There is one more element to the current definition of LRE- it is cheaper than the variety of special education placements. But I am sure that variable never entered into the equation when the requirement and definition of least restrictive were developed. Careful you don’t bit your tongue that is firmly planted in your cheek.