Disability advocates and former federal special education officials are warning of possible Trump administration moves to alter policy related to a central tenet of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Advocates met with top officials at the U.S. Department of Education last week after receiving what they called “credible information” indicating that the agency planned to change or reinterpret policy on IDEA’s requirement that students with disabilities be served in the least restrictive environment, or LRE.

IDEA states that students with disabilities should be taught alongside children without disabilities to the “maximum extent appropriate.” Advocates said they are worried that the Trump administration is looking to change the law’s presumption that “all children with disabilities will be educated in the general education classroom; except in the rare circumstance that the student cannot get a satisfactory education in that environment even with supplementary aids and services.”

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At the meeting, the advocates said they were told by Department of Education Chief of Staff Nate Bailey that “there would be no such reinterpretation of LRE in the immediate future” and he committed to upholding the law. But, Bailey along with the agency’s Acting General Counsel Reed Rubenstein and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett indicated that “nothing was off the table as part of the department’s rethink framework,” referring to a broad department agenda announced last fall to reconsider everything about how the agency administers special education.

“We are shocked that the department even considered pursuing this course,” read a joint statement from the coalition involved in the meeting, which included representatives of 11 advocacy groups as well as nine former government special education officials who served under Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Heather Sachs, policy and advocacy director at the National Down Syndrome Congress, said that concerns first emerged during a meeting earlier this month when several advocates heard Collett say that guidance clarifying LRE would be forthcoming.

Subsequently, Sachs said that “multiple credible sources” indicated to advocates that the guidance was to be revealed at a conference that’s being held by the Education Department’s Office of Special Education Programs this week.

“Several people saw the actual wording of the guidance, which would have weakened LRE,” she said.

Education Department Spokeswoman Liz Hill told Disability Scoop that “there are absolutely no pending department plans regarding LRE.” Hill said the advocates had heard a “rumor,” adding “LRE is absolutely not up for discussion.”

The department’s reassurances, however, did little to calm advocates who indicated that they would “vehemently oppose” any reinterpretation of LRE, which they said would have major repercussions for students with disabilities.

“We will work together to vigorously protect current law and fight any interpretation of LRE that alters or weakens IDEA’s clear requirement that schools and districts must consider general education first, for every child. We must protect IDEA’s presumption of general education because without it, we can expect to see increases in the inappropriate placement of children with disabilities in more segregated settings which contradicts the clear language, intent and established legal precedent of the IDEA,” the statement said.

Groups represented at the meeting included the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, the Autism Society of America, the Center for Public Representation, the Council for Exceptional Children, the Council of Administrators of Special Education, the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, the National Disability Rights Network and the National Down Syndrome Congress.

In addition, the ex-government officials present were Thomas Hehir, Judith Heumann, Stephanie Smith Lee, Melody Musgrove, Robert Pasternak, Alexa Posny, Sue Swenson, Madeleine Will and Michael Yudin, all of whom served as director of the Office of Special Education Programs, assistant secretary or deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at various points.

(Updated: July 22, 2019 at 11:30 p.m. ET)

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