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“Mainstreaming” or the “least restrictive environment” is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Mainstreaming requires that, “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities . . . [be] educated with children who are not disabled.” Further, under IDEA, “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 disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” IDEA creates a continuum of educational possibilities ranging from education in the least restrictive regular classrooms to the most restrictive segregated facilities. Courts have employed a variety of different tests to determine whether an individual’s educational plan is appropriate.

The Daniel R.R. Test

In Daniel R.R., the Fifth Circuit set out a two-pronged approach to determine whether a school district has offered to educate a child in the least restrictive environment. The Second, Third, Fifth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits currently follow this approach. Under this approach, first, the court should consider “whether education in the regular classroom, with the use of supplemental aids and services, can be achieved satisfactorily for a given child,” and, if not, then “whether the school has mainstreamed the child to the maximum extent appropriate.”

The court in Daniel R.R. also put forth a non-exhaustive list of factors that may be considered in conjunction with the first prong of the test. First, the court should examine whether the state has taken steps to accommodate the handicapped child in regular education. Second, the court should examine whether the child will receive an educational benefit from regular education. Next, the court should examine the child's overall educational experience in the mainstreamed environment, balancing the benefits of regular and special education for each individual child. Finally, the court should ask what effect the handicapped child's presence has on the regular classroom environment and, thus, on the education that the other students are receiving.

The Roncker Test

The Fourth, Six, and Eighth Circuits follow the Roncker approach set out by the Sixth Circuit. The Roncker approach holds that “[i]n a case where the segregated facility is considered superior, the court should determine whether the services which make that placement superior could be feasibly provided in a non-segregated setting. If they can, the placement in the segregated school would be inappropriate under the [IDEA].” Under this approach, there are three factors for determining when the mainstreaming requirement may be overcome: (1) whether the disabled student would benefit from inclusion from general education, (2) whether such benefits would be outweighed by benefits that are not provided in an inclusive setting, and (3) whether the disabled child disrupts the general education setting. 

The First, Seventh, and Ninth Circuits Approaches

The Seventh and Ninth Circuits have adopted neither the Daniel R.R. nor the Roncker approaches. Although, the Ninth Circuits approach employs factors used in both Daniel R.R. and Roncker. This combined approach uses a four-factor balancing test in which the court considers (1) the educational benefits of placement full-time in a regular class; (2) the non-academic benefits of such placement; (3) the effect the individual had on the teacher and children in the regular class; and (4) the costs of mainstreaming the individual. While the Seventh Circuit held it was “unnecessary” to adopt any formal test.

The First Circuit has rejected the Daniel R.R. test and does not follow the Roncker test. Instead, the First Circuit defers to the school district’s determination of which educational environment it thinks is best for the child. The First Circuit holds that a school district must evaluate the “marginal benefits” and the costs of mainstreaming to strike an “adequate and appropriate” balance between the restrictiveness of an educational plan and academic progress.

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]