The Unintended Consequences of ‘Mainstreaming’

The Unintended Consequences of Mainstreaming


By George W. Liebmann


Anyone assessing the very appropriate questions posed by the organizers of this symposium should focus on an underappreciated piece of federal legislation: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, passed during the first Bush administration. While the disabilities act for adults was a humane measure resulting in sidewalks and transit services more hospitable to the elderly, its juvenile counterpart, though enacted with the best of intentions, has had nothing but malign effects.


The IDEA legislation was indeed a bad idea. The least of its defects was that it is a classic unfunded mandate, the federal government providing only a small fraction of funds needed for its implementation. Its chief defect was its flawed theory, mandating the “mainstreaming” of the developmentally disabled in ordinary classrooms. Mainstreaming had been launched in Britain by the social philosopher Lady Mary Warnock. Her subsequent repudiation of it after years of experience in the U.K. passed unnoticed in the United States. Its effect has frequently been to saddle classroom teachers with incapable or disruptive students who operate as a drag on classroom progress.


Even more remarkably, such funds as are provided by the federal government and required to be provided by the states are not devoted at all to the hiring of teachers, but rather to the hiring of bureaucrats to prepare the individual development plans required by the legislation. Worse still, parents are encouraged to seek the designation of children as “disabled” to secure this extra attention, causing numbers and costs to multiply.


Since the statute has been designated as a “civil rights” law, parents are encouraged to sue school districts by the Civil Rights Attorneys’ Fees Act, providing for one-way fee shifting. Even partially successful suits result in awards of tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, which cause smaller school districts to fold in the face of threatened litigation, which costs larger districts millions annually.


The worst single provision in the act is its restraints on school discipline. Procedures going well beyond the constitutional minimum are required in order to discipline “disabled” students, and the definition of disability has been extended to include the “emotionally disabled” – i.e., the disruptive. Because of mainstreaming, it is impractical for schools to maintain two systems of discipline, one for disabled and one for ordinary students. The federal standards and threat of one-way fee-shifting thus undermine discipline of all students.


In the late 1990s when this deficiency began to appear, former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton (R-WA) made a strenuous effort to repeal the discipline provisions, which failed by only two votes in the Senate. This effort deserves to be renewed.


Schools, in the last analysis, as the late George Kennan heretically observed, exist to serve educational purposes, not social ones. The most deprived groups, in any case, need and are benefitted by discipline.


Other issues addressed in this symposium cannot be dealt with in this short compass. One deserves to be mentioned: The educational effects of broken families and the “feminization of poverty.” This, together with the demise of “shotgun weddings,” as the distinguished economists Janet Yellen and George Akerlof bravely observed in 1996 in two articles in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Brookings Review, is in considerable measure due to the sexual carelessness resulting from the judicially decreed liberalization of the laws governing abortion, which, contrary to the expectations of its advocates, has exploded the number of out-of-wedlock births and one-parent families.


George Liebmann is .a Baltimore lawyer and the author of a number of historical works, most recently America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury 2019) . . .

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