While New Jersey has been among the bottom three states over the past decade when it comes to the inclusion of students with disabilities, the most recent 43rd Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2021 (IDEA) identifies New Jersey as the worst state in the country when it comes to including students with disabilities in general education classes.
The report to Congress shows only 44.6% of New Jersey students with disabilities eligible for special education services are included in the general education classroom 80% or more of the day, the benchmark for the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) for students under the IDEA. The rest spend more, most, or all of their time in self-contained settings or out-of-district placements.
New Jersey’s dismal performance on this crucial measure is not new—the state’s inclusion rate has barely changed over the last 20 years, while other states’ inclusion rates have increased significantly. The national average for students with disabilities who receive special education services included in the general education classroom is 64.8%, according to the 43rd annual report, up from the 47.4% national average reported in the 23rd annual report.
Every student served under the IDEA has the right to be included in the general education classroom with their peers. The IDEA requires school districts to provide children with disabilities a “free and appropriate public education” in the least restrictive environment. LRE is a key provision of the IDEA intended to ensure that states and school districts make every effort to educate students with disabilities in classrooms alongside their non-disabled peers with the appropriate supports and interventions.
The latest report to Congress is particularly disturbing, given a groundbreaking settlement in 2014 that provided extensive training and technical assistance in the area of inclusion to the 76 New Jersey school districts with the highest rates of segregating students with disabilities. The settlement with the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) resulted from a 2007 lawsuit by Education Law Center, Disability Rights New Jersey, the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey, and the ARC of New Jersey.
Despite intensive support to those 76 districts, the final monitoring reports issued by the NJDOE under the court settlement found that 21 of the districts remained noncompliant in three or more areas of LRE. In addition, the monitoring reports revealed that the LRE area in which districts struggled most with compliance was related to the use of supplementary aids and services to support special education students in general education classrooms.
“Research on the benefits of inclusion has not wavered,” said Elizabeth Athos, ELC Senior Attorney. “The fact that New Jersey’s rate of inclusion of students with disabilities in general education classrooms has been virtually stagnant while other states have improved is a strong wake-up call that the Legislature and Governor Phil Murphy’s administration must make a bigger and more sustained commitment to integrating public school classrooms.”
According to the most recent Congressional report, about 9.8% of U.S. students ages 6 to 21, and 12.9% in New Jersey, received services under the IDEA in 2019, the most recent year for which national data is available.
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