It is not unusual for a school district to suggest that a student’s special education needs can be fully accommodated with a 504 plan instead of an IEP. But before you agree to try a 504 plan for your child instead of an IEP, consider the following:
Section 504 and the IDEA Serve Different Purposes
A “504 plan” refers to accommodations that are offered to a student under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act is a broad civil rights statute that protects all individuals with disabilities from being discriminated against by institutions that receive federal funding, including school districts. The goal of a 504 plan is to ensure that students with disabilities receive an education that is equal to the education being offered to typically developing students. In other words, Section 504 is about leveling the playing field for students with disabilities and stopping discrimination.
The purpose of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure that students with disabilities “have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.” The goal of the IDEA is to make that sure students with disabilities receive the extra services and supports needed to make progress and to promote independence.
IEPs Offer More Support Than 504 Plans
A 504 plan will generally identify the accommodations or modifications that a student with disabilities may need in order to access his or her educational program in a public school. It is a basic accommodation plan that is often only a page or two in length. A 504 plan simply sets forth any accommodations a student needs to have the same access to their education as students in the general education classroom. It is designed to ensure equality, but will not address a given student’s learning needs.
By contrast, an IEP is a much more detailed and lengthy document that explicitly identifies a student’s unique learning needs and performance levels, identifies measurable academic and non-academic goals for the student, describes how the student’s progress will be measured each year, identifies all services and accommodations that will be provided to the student, identifies where the student will receive these services, and if appropriate, identifies all transition services the student will be receiving.
IEPs Provide More Protection Than 504 Plans
Perhaps the most important difference between 504 plans and IEPs is the difference in protection they provide. For example:
- IEPs need to be reviewed annually, 504 plans only need to be reviewed “periodically”, which in some districts means every two to three years (or longer).
- The IDEA provides specific guidance and timelines for the evaluation process, whereas the evaluation requirements of Section 504 can be significantly looser.
- The IDEA specifically identifies the required members of a child’s IEP Team, where as Section 504 only requires that any placement decisions are made by persons who are knowledgeable about the student (parents are not specifically required to be part of a Section 504 Team).
- IEPs must be committed to writing, whereas 504 plans do not have to be documented by a school district.
- Students with IEPs receive regular progress reports, whereas students with 504 plans do not.
A 504 plan is an important civil rights tool that ensures equal access to education and provides some protection to students with disabilities. However, if your child is eligible for special education services, an IEP is almost always a better option.