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Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) & FAPE
by Pete Wright, Esq. and Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

The IDEA includes two fundamental requirements: that the child will receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
The least restrictive environment (LRE) requirement is often referred to as "mainstreaming."
What does least restrictive environment mean? What is the purpose of the "mainstreaming policy"?

Under what circumstances can school districts place children with disabilities in separate special education programs where they are segregated from children who are not disabled?

children working with a teacher in an

Florence County v. Carter: Mainstreaming Policy

In 1991, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit described the purpose of the mainstreaming policy in Florence County v. Shannon Carter:

"Under the Act, mainstreaming is a policy to be pursued so long as it is consistent with the Act’s primary goal of providing disabled students with an appropriate education. Where necessary for educational reasons, mainstreaming assumes a subordinate role in formulating an educational program. See Rowley . . . In any event, the Act’s preference for mainstreaming was aimed at preventing schools from segregating handicapped students from the general student body . . ."

Hartmann v. Loudon County: Educational Benefit v. Mainstreaming Preference

In 1997, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned a favorable decision in an inclusion case, Mark Hartmann v. Loudon County.
The Court found that mainstreaming or inclusion is secondary to the need to provide a free appropriate education from which the child receives educational benefit:

"The mainstreaming provision represents recognition of the value of having disabled children interact with non-handicapped students. The fact that the provision only creates a presumption, however, reflects a congressional judgment that receipt of such social benefits is ultimately a goal subordinate to the requirement that disabled children receive educational benefit."

"... the IDEA’s mainstreaming provision establishes a presumption, not an inflexible federal mandate. Under its terms, disabled children are to be educated with children who are not handicapped only "to the maximum extent appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(5)(B). Section 1412(5)(B) explicitly states that mainstreaming is not appropriate "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."
20 U.S.C. § 1412(5)(B); see also Rowley, 458 U.S. at 181 n.4."

In Hartmann, the Court held that:

" . . . we specifically held that mainstreaming is inappropriate when "the handicapped child is a disruptive force in the non-segregated setting." 882 F.2d at 879 (quoting Roncker v. Walter, 700 F.2d 1058, 1063 (6th Cir. 1983)). In this case, disruptive behavior was clearly an issue."

N.R. v. Kingwood Township: Continuum of Placements

In N.R. v. Kingwood Township (NJ), U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit clarified "meaningful benefit" as the requirement to offer a "continuum of placements," and the requirement to provide a "free appropriate education (FAPE)" in the "least restrictive environment."

The case involved N.R., a child who was found eligible for special education services at age 3. The district developed an IEP that placed him in a "hybrid" preschool program, described as "a single, half-day preschool class composed of half disabled children and half non-disabled children." His parents rejected the district's IEP and placed their child in a private preschool program.

"Significant Learning" & "Meaningful Educational Benefit"

Many special education disputes involve questions about FAPE and educational benefit. In N.R. v. Kingwood Township (NJ), the court clarified "educational benefit":

"Specifically . . a satisfactory IEP must provide "significant learning" and confer "meaningful benefit."

LRE Requirement

In N.R., the Third Circuit discussed the LRE requirement:

"The least restrictive environment is the one that, to the greatest extent possible, satisfactorily educates disabled children together with children who are not disabled, in the same school the disabled child would attend if the child were not disabled."

"We have interpreted this mandate to require that a disabled child be placed in the least restrictive environment (hereinafter "LRE") that will provide him with a meaningful educational benefit."

Hybrid Programs: Provide FAPE in LRE?  

Many school districts have developed "hybrid" programs to provide special education to young children with disabilities. A typical "hybrid" preschool program is designed to educate children with disabilities in a class that includes some nondisabled or "typically developing" children.

(Note: In our experience, many "hybrid classes" are similar to "self contained" special education classes.) 

The Third Circuit found that hybrid programs would not usually provide FAPE in the least restrictive environment: 

"We believe that, under the IDEA's strict mainstreaming requirement, a hybrid preschool program like Kingwood's would ordinarily provide the LRE only under two circumstances: first, where education in a regular classroom (with the use of supplementary aids and services) could not be achieved satisfactorily or, second, where a regular classroom is not available within a reasonable commuting distance of the child.

What Does the Law Say About LRE?  

The IDEA statute and implementing regulations emphasize the requirement to educate children with disabilities in regular classes with their nondisabled peers:

"While the Act and regulations recognize that IEP teams must make individualized decisions about the special education ... IDEA’s strong preference that, to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities be educated in regular classes with their nondisabled peers with appropriate supplementary aids and services."

Continuum of Placement Options

The IEP must include "An explanation of the extent, if any, to which the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class and in extracurricular and other nonacademic areas." 20 USC 1414(d)(1)(A)(i) (Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, page 100)

Did the school district propose or attempt to educate N.R. in a regular classroom before they proferred the IEP that placed him in a hybrid program? According to the Court, "the record contains no indication that N.R. could not have been educated satisfactorily in a regular classroom."

Private Program Provided FAPE in LRE 

The Court concluded that the school district’s program and the private preschool program provided FAPE. But the private preschool program went one step further -- it provided FAPE in the least restrictive environment. 

The Court vacated the District Court’s holding that the public school placement complied with the LRE requirement, and remanded the case back to that Court for "additional proceedings." The Court cited the Supreme Court's decision in Florence County v. Shannon Carter and their earlier decision in Warren G. v Cumberland Valley:

"Both Florence and Warren G. involved disputes over the FAPE requirement. They did not address the situation we face in this case, where both the state-chosen (accredited) school and the parent-chosen (unaccredited) school would provide an FAPE, but where the unaccredited school would arguably provide a less restrictive environment." 


Florence County School District IV v. Shannon Carter (U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 1991)

Florence County School District IV v. Shannon Carter (U. S. Supreme Court, 1993)

Mark Hartmann v. Loudon County School Bd (U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, 1996)

N.R. v. Kingwood Township (U. S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, 2000) Decision in pdf

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Last revised: 01/02/09

Created: 05/08/98

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