Children with disabilities are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) at school. However, this was not always the case. Up until the 1970s, children with disabilities were not entitled to necessary supports and services to allow them to succeed in school. In fact, many children, especially those with the most significant needs, were not even allowed in public schools and were often deemed “uneducable.”
In 1971, The Arc of Pennsylvania, then referred to as Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC), filed a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that would change the landscape of education, not only in Pennsylvania, but in the entire country. The result of the case, led to a consent decree that established the right to a free public education for children with mental retardation. The case also laid the foundation for the establishment of the right to an education for all children with disabilities.
By 1975, the U.S. Congress had passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This law provided for the aforementioned entitlement of children with disabilities to a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. FAPE is defined as special education and related services that are provided in accordance with the requirements of the law. The requirement to provide FAPE extends to charter schools as well as traditional public schools.
The centerpiece of the IDEA is the Individualized Educational Program (IEP). The IEP, which is reviewed at least annually, describes the present level of educational achievement and behavioral performance for the student. It then describes measurable annual goals that are meant to track the student’s progress in areas of need. Specially designed instruction and modifications describe the means in which the student is to achieve these goals. The student may also be entitled to related services in order to access his or her education. These related services include Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, Speech and Language Therapy, and transportation services between the school and the child’s home. The IDEA additionally provides numerous safeguards for children and parents to ensure that the child is receiving FAPE.
As discussed above, students under the IDEA are entitled to receive their education in the Least Restrictive Environment. Often, the LRE is the general education classroom in the child’s neighborhood school. The presumption is that IEP teams begin placement discussions with a consideration of the general education classroom and the supplementary aids and services that are needed to enable a student with a disability to benefit from educational services. (Pa. Dep’t of Ed. Basic Education Circular, 22 Pa. Code §14.102 (a)(2) (xxiv)). Unfortunately, it is often a struggle to have children with disabilities educated in the general education classroom in an inclusive environment.
An inclusive education is about more than mainstreaming, which is more akin to placing children in general education classrooms without proper supports. In principle, an inclusive education means “the valuing of diversity within the human community. When inclusive education is fully embraced, we abandon the idea that children have to become “normal” in order to contribute to the world…We begin to look beyond typical ways of becoming valued members of the community, and in doing so, begin to realize the achievable goal of providing all children with an authentic sense of belonging.” (Kunc, N. (1992). The need to belong. Rediscovering Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.)
An inclusive education requires a commitment by the IEP team and the school to provide a child with the supports necessary to succeed in the general education setting. Not only is there a legal presumption to place children in the general education classroom, but there is statistical justification for these placement decisions. Research has continually shown that providing children with disabilities access to an inclusive education will provide academic, social, and behavioral benefits for children with and without disabilities. It also results in improved outcomes when the child leaves the education system.
The Arc of Philadelphia’s Position
What are we doing?
The Arc of Philadelphia provides direct representation of families with children with disabilities to help ensure that they are receiving the proper supports and services in school. This includes attending IEP meetings, helping families request evaluations, and providing resources and advice.
The Arc of Philadelphia is also involved in promoting appropriate systemic changes within the school system. The Arc of Philadelphia works with relevant stakeholders, such as school officials, legislators, and other agencies to work toward these changes.
The Arc of Philadelphia is a member of the Philadelphia Coalition of Special Education Advocates, a group of non-profit organizations that meets regularly to discuss issues and develop solutions to those issues.
The Arc of Philadelphia is also a part of the Right to Education Local Task Force. The Local Task Force is a parent-led organization dedicated to improving Special Education in Philadelphia, and traces its origins to the PARC Consent Decree discussed above. The Local Task Force meets monthly with parents, advocates, community service providers, and district and school administrators to discuss how to improve special education in our schools and sharing successes.
PARC vs. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania