The federal act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 2004, provides that every student who has been identified as being learning disabled is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) up to age 21 that will prepare them for employment or further education and independent living. The 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (Public Law 94-142), the predecessor to the IDEA, provided that the FAPE must take place in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
The 2005 United States Department of Education regulations implementing the IDEA state that children with disabilities must be educated with children who are "nondisabled." Special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from a regular educational environment may only occur 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."
LRE promotes the highest degree of inclusion of students with disabilities in mainstream schools and minimal segregation. One of the main advantages of LRE is contact with nondisabled peers. Even if a student's educational needs are profound, they can share lunch, recess, and resource classes such as art and music. LRE creates an opportunity for all students to learn about each other and develop a caring society.
The decision about where to place a student and what provision should be available is made through a team process that includes professionals and parents. The IDEA approach is to consider one child at a time, focusing on their individual needs, rather than trying to fit them into the existing framework. The first stage involves assessing the child's needs and preparing an individualized education program (IEP).
States vary in the extent to which they operate separate classrooms, separate schools, and residential facilities. In Roncker v. Walter (1983), referring to the IDEA, the judge held:
"It is not enough for a district to simply claim that a segregated program is superior. In a case where the segregated facility is considered superior, the court should determine whether the services which make the placement superior could be feasibly provided in a nonsegregated setting (i.e., regular class). If they can, the placement in the segregated school would be inappropriate under the act."
In Daniel R. R. v. State Board of Education, (1989) the Court adopted a two-part test for determining the LRE:
1. Can an appropriate education be achieved satisfactorily in the general education classroom with the use of supplementary aids and services?
2. Is the student "integrated" to the "maximum extent appropriate," if the student is placed in a more restrictive setting?
In Board of Education, Sacramento City Unified School District v. Holland (1994), four legitimate factors were identified:
• The academic benefits of integration for the student
• Nonacademic benefits (particularly social interaction)
• The effect of the student on the teacher and his or her peers
• The cost of supplementary services
Funding constraints are a major factor in establishing integrated and separate programs. Some special education providers in non-integrated environments oppose integration in line with LRE policy, arguing that if they place children in general education settings and move away from the use of labels to identify students for particular types of services, they are in jeopardy of losing their funding. However, cost savings can be made by moving away from segregated institutions with high staff to student ratios. Integration allows students to share existing funding for general education.
Not all general education settings have the ability to serve all students with disabilities. LRE promotes the development of inclusive community schools that can provide for all students, regardless of disability. A structural obstacle to the LRE is that special education institutions are run by regional special education advisers and their superintendents, who have an interest in maintaining existing special education institutions. Special education and general teachers tend to be trained separately and follow separate career paths, which preserves a degree of segregation.
Parents and lobbying groups have generally promoted LRE as an option for students. However some find that the facilities and support in the general educational setting are inadequate, and seek less inclusive provision.
Critics of LRE sometimes argue that inclusion can harm general educational programs. Financially, spending per student amongst those with disabilities tends to be considerably higher than for a nondisabled student. The allocation of other resources, including teacher time, is unlikely to be equal, which some argue detracts from the general educational provision for nondisabled students. A counter-argument to this is that the benefits for all students of an inclusive society outweigh any additional costs or detriment.