Academic journal article Exceptional Children

A Qualitative Policy Study of the Least Restrictive Environment Provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

A Qualitative Policy Study of the Least Restrictive Environment Provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

Article excerpt

Since the implementation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1978 (currently known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA), practitioners, researchers, parents, and policy makers have continually raised questions about the interpretation and implementation of the least restrictive environment (LRE) provision of the Act. Federal regulations associated with the LRE provision of the Act specified:

1. 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

2. 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 handicap

is such that education in regular classes with the

use of supplementary aids and services cannot

be achieved satisfactorily. (34 C.F.R. Sec.


At the same time. additional regulations mandated that a continuum of alternative placements be available to meet the needs of individual students and include instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and hospitals and institutions. So although the Act and the regulations created a presumption in favor of educating students with disabilities in general education environments, they also acknowledged a need for a range of alternative placement options. Regarding decisions about placement options and LRE, the law specified that these determinations would be made through a team process including professionals and parents. Although the wisdom of such an approach seems obvious, several researchers have suggested that many contextual issues contribute to the way in which the team determines what is considered the LRE for a particular student (Brinker & Thorpe, 1985; Noel & Fuller, 1985; Rostetter, Kowalski, & Hunter, 1984; Turnbull et al., 1983).

From a systemic perspective, Danielson and Bellamy (1989) illustrated different implementation approaches to LRE policy. They analyzed data provided by states to the U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) on the placement rates for students with disabilities in separate classrooms, separate schools, and residential facilities across the states and the District of Columbia. The authors suggested that these placement rates provided a means for exploring how the LRE provision was being implemented. They demonstrated that states varied in the extent to which they used separate classrooms, separate schools, and residential facilities; and they raised questions about why some states had generally considered more segregated placement options, and others relied more heavily on placements in general education settings.

The purpose of this study was to identify and describe factors and conditions that contributed to varying approaches to implementation of LRE policy across states and local school districts. It was not our intent to analyze or evaluate either the legal history or the student outcomes associated with the policy. Rather, we were interested in understanding how states and local sites implemented the LRE provision--what means were used by implementors and what forces and conditions they understood were important in the implementation of this provision.


This 3-year, multisite, policy study began in 1989. The qualitative methodology we used reflected an assumption that policy research is informed from direct first-person accounts of people who are encountering the experience (Moustakas, 1990, p. 38) and that the multiple perspectives of the interviewees would provide the researchers with a holistic perspective essential for overall understanding (Patton, 1990, p. …

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