A Problematic philosophy of "Full Inclusion"
Its effects on policy and practice

by David Weitzel
(Elementary School Principal)

RETURN to Practical Ethics Catalog
Edited 4/14/14


Special education has become an increasingly complicated and uncertain part of public education. The litigious approach to “solving” public school conflicts, especially in the area of special education, has made the job of building principal even more demanding. As an elementary school principal, I am responsible for the education of all students in my school, however, more of my time and energy is devoted to issues related to special education.

Building principals need to balance human and financial resources for both general and special education students. Meetings with the parents of some special education students require disproportionate amounts of time. A principal needs to listen carefully, intelligently and critically. He/she must also have the skills to balance what a special education student may require to maximize that child’s opportunities for success with the possible impact on his/her same age peers in a general education classroom. There is a need to be well informed of special education law and its impact on both general education and special education students.

Advocates of full inclusion and many of the legal decisions rendered over the past 10 to 15 years have caused public schools to rethink the manner in which we meet the educational needs of school-aged children with a variety of handicaps. The handicaps can range from a mild learning disability to a multiple handicapped child. A key part of the current educational debate and of current educational case law is the philosophy of full inclusion. I will examine the impact this philosophy is having on general education and special education students.

Special Education Today

Special education has become a drain on human and financial resources in districts across our country. In large part because the philosophy of full inclusion is out of control and is not in the best interest of all special education students. Inclusion has become an entitlement for most parents of special needs students. The combination of less than adequate funding of IDEA, a costly federal mandate, and the unfair treatment of both general and special education students will further harm the education of all students.

I never thought I would speak those words. I have worked directly with special needs students of all school ages over a thirty-year period starting when I was in high school. During this period of time we have gone from the unfair and inhumane warehousing of disabled or special needs children, to fully including severely disabled children in general education classes with their same aged peers with little or no preparation and without sound educational reasons. I have run the political, educational, personal and emotional gamut. I have moved from being appalled at the warehousing of disabled persons to wondering what, if any, educational value there is in placing a severally disabled child in a general education class all day - full inclusion.

In developing this paper, I am reminded of the American ideal of equality and its impact on the current debate on meeting the needs of the wide range of student needs present in most public schools across this country. Public education represents a “social contract” to educate American children. The passage of Public Law 94-142: Education of All Handicapped Children Act (1875) and The Individuals with Disabilities Act (1997), referred to as IDEA, have called into question the ability of our schools to meet the educational needs of ALL children, handicapped and non-handicapped alike. In particular, the funding levels from both the state and federal government are unjustly inadequate creating a burden on local school districts. Hinman (2003) points out that one of the clearest examples of a social contract right in our own society is to be found in the rights of the disabled. He goes on to say that the Americans with Disabilities Act raises important issues that bear on the controversy between utilitarian approaches to rights and the approaches of the strong rights theorists. For the utilitarian, the rights of the disabled are to be guaranteed only to the extent that doing so maximizes overall utility. Yet the clear message of the Americans with Disabilities Act is that these rights are to be respected, even if doing so does not maximize utility in the narrow sense (Hinman, 2003.)

As with most important educational issues, the just and practical solution to this emotionally, legally, costly and educationally difficult issue is found somewhere in the middle. It cannot be addressed with what has become a misguided philosophical entitlement. I am an elementary school principal in the XYZ School District. Approximately 10% of the students in my school have Individual Educational Plans (IEPs). That does not include gifted or speech and language only IEPs. Our school has both resource rooms and full time learning support classrooms for students whose disabilities are on the autistic support spectrum. I have been involved in two due process hearings both related to the question of legal and just treatment of very needy students. The central question in each case was the degree to which each child’s educational needs could be met in a general education classroom. I will focus on the most recent case I was part of decided within the last month. The hearing officer and the Special Education Appeals Panel decisions provide a measure of reason and educational guidance.

Important Terms: their definition and import

There are a few key ideas that need to be defined in order to more fully understand the issues discussed in this paper. These represent some of the most inflammatory terms often argued about during multi-disciplinary team meetings, Individual Education Plan meetings and due process hearings.

Least restrictive environment: The placement of students with disabilities between the ages of three through twenty-one in appropriate settings has been an integral part of IDEA since its enactment. There are three components to the placing of disabled children in the LRE. They are: 1.) to the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities are educated with students who are non-disabled; 2.) special classes, separate schooling or other removal of children with disabilities from regular classroom occurs only when the nature or severity of the educational disability is such that education in regular class cannot be achieved satisfactorily with the use of supplementary aides and services; 3.) to the maximum extent appropriate, each child with a disability participates with non-disabled children in nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities (IDEA, 1997).

Mainstreaming has been used to refer to the selective placement of special education students in one or more “regular” education classes. Proponents of mainstreaming generally assume that the student must “earn” his or her opportunity to be placed in the regular classes by demonstrating the ability to “keep up” with the work assigned by the regular classroom teacher.

Inclusion is a term which expresses commitment to educate each child to the maximum extent possible, in the school, or classroom he/she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the supportive services to the child and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class rather than keeping up with the other students in the class.

Full Inclusion means that all students regardless of handicapping condition or severity, will be in a regular education classroom/program full time. All services must be taken to the child in that place. Those who support inclusion believe that the child always should begin in the regular classroom environment and be removed only when appropriate services cannot be provided in the regular classroom.

There are numerous studies that currently advocate for including special education students in the general education classroom for varied amounts of times ranging from time in lunch and recess with same age general education peers to full inclusion (Janney, et. al, 1995; Sapon-Shevin, 2003; Villa and Thousand, 2003). One thing that is immediately obvious is the degree to which the advocates of full inclusion dominate the educational literature. There are few articles that question the benefit to the special education student and speak to the potential harm to the general education program when a severally disabled child is fully included in a general education classroom (Crawford; Rozycki, 2002; Sklaroff, 1994). I found none that focused solely on the financial impact on local school districts of this drastically under funded mandated program. Most articles focused on how to make inclusion work in your school. They addressed the political, educational and school climate issues required to make inclusion a success for all.

Understanding IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) and its implications on each school has become a greater part of each school administrator’s responsibilities. The legal implications of educational decisions as they pertain to special education have never been so difficult and so expensive. The difficulty comes from the pressure associated with balancing the needs of the special education student with the educational interests of the general education students. The financial costs can come from the educational resources associated with including a special education student in a general education classroom or from costly litigation that seems more commonplace.

Least restrictive environment and a child’s degree of need are key legal and educational terms. During the past 28 years, the interpretation of what constitutes the least restrictive environment has evolved, along with schools’ and educators’ abilities to provide effective supports. As a result increased numbers of students with disabilities are now served in both regular schools and general education classes within those schools (Villa and Thousand, 2003).

What is, and is not, in the law.

The trend of meeting the educational and social needs of disabled students in public school and within general education classrooms has made it imperative that principals serve as educational leaders - knowledgeable of special education law and the educational requirements associated with these laws.

It is essential to point out that the term “inclusion” does not appear in any section of IDEA. The IDEA states: Each State must establish procedures to assure that, to the maximum extent possible, children with disabilities are educated with children who are not disabled and that special education, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular education environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular education classes with supplementary aides and services cannot be achieve satisfactorily.” 20 U.S.C. 1412(5) (B). Mainstreaming and integration are mentioned. Janney, Snell, Beers and Raynes (p.26, 1995) point out in their article “Integrating Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities Into General Education Classes” the remedy of integrating children with special needs into the mainstream of the schools while providing them with individualized supports is one educational reform made particularly complex because it forces a tangential relationship between special education and general education to intersect and become more cooperative in nature. Advocates of full inclusion as defined earlier in this paper do not see the need for cooperation between special education and general education; therefore, cooperation and agreement often seem to be a scarce commodity.

Rozycki (2002) writes

“that practices of special education, particularly, that of Inclusion, (treat some students) -- often despite their resistance – as the means to the other individual’s ends. This is a violation of the principle, recognized in many cultures and formulated by Immanuel Kant to the effect that we should always treat individuals as ends-in-themselves, not merely as means to our own, or others’ ends.”

This most recent due process case is an example of parents using the philosophy of full inclusion as a means to their own ends – a need for attention.

The decision in a recent case (Assignment of Stephanie S. in the XYschool) in our school district at my elementary school seems to lend guidance to the question of the degree to which a child with a disability is to be educated in the regular classroom with supplemental aides and services. The Oberti case addressed a central question as to effect on the quality of services that a special needs child receives and the location of those services – a special education setting or a general education setting. This three-prong test was applied in the case in our school:

  1. The child can derive educational or other meaningful benefit;
  2. The child’s presence in the class would not be disruptive;
  3. The cost of including the child is not excessive.

In this Special Education Appeals Panel Review decision (Stephanie S. v. the XYZ School District), the three-judge panel addressed the regulations relevant to the issue of least restrictive environment. The panel cited section 300.550 General LRE requirements that , (b) (2):

“special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular education environment occurs only if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

The question central to the panel’s decision was can Stephanie receive an appropriate education in the regular class 100 percent of the time (full inclusion) or does she require some supplementary special education? The panel needed to balance the student’s right to placement in the least restrictive environment with her right to an appropriate education designed to derive meaningful educational benefit.

The concluding paragraph in this decision speaks directly to the issue of misplaced zealousness of the philosophy of full inclusion experienced with these particular parents. The panel stated, “We agree with the hearing officer’s analysis that the district’s plan is a manifestation of their desire to fight for Stephanie’s right to an appropriate education, not an attempt to exclude her.” It went on to say, “given that both IDEA regulations and the Oberti court indicated that resource and consulting special education support are appropriate supplemental aides and services to enable a student to derive benefit from regular class placement, we are somewhat puzzled by the parents’ insistence on eliminating them. Quite frankly, the district would be remiss if it took this action.”

It is my position that the parents did in fact use their daughter as a means to an end. If reasonable people could agree on the three criteria listed above, there could be fair and helpful mainstreaming for special needs students in public schools.


Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: Special Education Due Process Appeals Panel Review. In Re the Educational Assignment of Stephanie S., a Student in the Central Bucks School District. Opinion No. 1414

Crawford, Donald. “Full Inclusion: One Reason for Opposition.” Wisconsin Press.

Hinman, Lawrence. “Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory.” Thomson-Wadsworth Publishers (2003).

Janney, Snell, Beers, Raynes. “Integrating Students with Moderate and Severe Disabilities Into General Education Classes.” Exceptional Children (1995): pp. 425-439.

Rozycki, Edward. “The Practice of Special Education: Definitely Immoral, Potential Illegal.” Educational Horizons (2002).

Sapon-Shevin, Mara. “Inclusion: A Matter of Social Justice.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2003): pp. 25-28.

Sklaroff, Sara. “A.F.T. Urges Halt to ‘Full Inclusion’ Movement.” Education Week (1994).

Villa and Thousand. “Making Inclusive Education Work.” Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (2003) pp.19-23.

Western Regional Resource Center, “Educating Students with Disabilities in General Education Classrooms: A Summary of the Research.” (July 26, 2003).

Wisconsin Education Association Council, “Special Education Inclusion.” (November 5, 2001).