IEPs and 504s are both designed to provide accommodations for a student with disabilities but there’s a big difference between the two.
The IEP is driven by IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is federal law. The 504 Plan is driven by the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is also federal law.
So how do you know which one is right for your child?
Knowing the difference is very important in deciding what route to take so you can make the best choice for your child.
An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a plan developed for students with disabilities who are eligible for special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is specific to Special Education whereas, a 504 Plan relates to equal access to school and prohibits discrimination. The IEP outlines the student’s strengths, needs, goals, and the educational accommodations and services that will be provided to help the student succeed in school. The IEP provides a myriad of therapies, aide support, behavior intervention, psychological services, and specialized educational programs that are not available under Section 504. The IEP requires specific goals to address your child’s areas of need and the school must monitor your child’s progress. Whereas the 504 Plan does not provide goals and the 504 team is not obligated to monitor your child’s educational performance or progress. Most 504s consist of accommodations only and those accommodations are seldom implemented with fidelity.
A 504 plan is a written plan developed for students with any disability. Students who are not found eligible for special education services under IDEA, but still need accommodations to access their education, are typically offered a 504 Plan. Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in any program or activity that receives federal funding. The 504 plan outlines the accommodations and support that will be provided to the student to help them participate fully in school and have equal access to their education as that of their non-disabled peers.
Both IEPs and 504 plans provide accommodations for students with disabilities. IEPs are specifically for students eligible for special education services. Here’s the glitch, many students do qualify for special education, however, the school’s evaluation failed to find the student eligible. This is when parents should seek the assistance of an advocate or attorney to implement their rights and support them in the dissent process in finding their child eligible for special education.
In the 25 years I’ve been advocating, I only had one client denied an IEP when we disagreed with the district assessment that failed to find the student eligible for special education. And that was because he was too young. Once he got older, his disability adversely impacted his ability to access the curriculum and he was found eligible.
So how do you know if a 504 will meet the needs of your child? If your child only requires accommodations, is resistant to receiving supports or services, and only requires a little help with extra time for assignments or more support from a teacher, a 504 may be sufficient. But if your child’s disability is impeding their ability to access the curriculum and make progress in their education, they will need an IEP because accommodations under a 504 will not be sufficient to meet the needs of a child whose disability is impeding learning or educational progress.
An IEP is provided through the special education department, and a special education teacher will act as a case manager to write and oversee implementation of an IEP. The IEP team is comprised of the student’s service providers, general education teacher(s), special education teacher(s), school site administrator, district representative, and parent(s). A 504 is comprised of a school administrator, psychologist, or guidance counselor, who will typically manage 504 plans. It is common for schools to fail to conduct the required 504 annual meeting. I have seen students’ 504s fail to be updated for years. Conversely, an Annual IEP meeting must be held once a year and there are strict timelines that schools are mandated to adhere to.
The IEP is a legal contract that schools respect because they know they are obligated to implement the special education program, exactly as it is written. A 504 Plan is often disregarded and not respected because district staff know that parents seldom file for due process or hold schools accountable for failing to provide accommodations. It is common for teachers to not even be aware a student has a 504 plan and teachers who are aware, have no incentive or accountability to follow the 504.
Once your child graduates from high school, an IEP can be transcribed to create a 504 plan to be implemented in post-secondary education institutions. A high school student with an IEP may bring it to the college or vocational school and request a 504 plan similar to the accommodations listed in their IEP. The same can be done if your child received a 504 Plan in public school.
Whether an IEP or 504 is more appropriate for your child, it is important that they receive the support they need to access their education. When parents don’t know their rights under IDEA or ADA, schools often fail to provide the supports and services students need without parents who know how to hold school districts accountable.
Cheering you on always!
If you haven’t joined our Private Special Education Parent Empowerment Facebook Group yet, you should check it out here.
Here’s what parents are saying about the group:
“Please keep blowing the whistle, Valerie! So many children are being deprived of an education because of all the corruption and lies being told to parents. We pay our taxes like everyone else, which can be interpreted as our children have the same rights as any other child.” ~ Maria
“I take my job of advocating for my sped students very seriously! I love your page, Valerie. Thank you for all the great information you provide!” ~ BJ, Teacher
Valerie Aprahamian is a special education advocate, IEP strategist, and speaker. She speaks on behalf of parents to protect the rights of neurodiverse children to receive the supports they need in public school.