IEP vs. 504: What’s the difference?

The day has arrived for the discussion at your child’s school about her psycho-education evaluation. You see that the school team is recommending a 504 Plan, not an Individualized Education Program (IEP). If you’re like most parents, you’re confused by this and wonder what’s going on.

Both a 504 Plan and an IEP provide important protections to students with disabilities. But the protections offered to students with IEPs and 504s are not the same.

What is a 504 Plan?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law, prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. A person with a disability is defined as having a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activity, including walking, seeing, hearing and aspects of learning such as reading, writing and calculating. The law requires schools to eliminate any barriers that prevent students with such disabilities from participating fully in their education. It requires a written 504 Plan setting forth reasonable accommodations that will be made to give the child equal educational access.

What is an IEP?

The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) provides for free and appropriate education (FAPE) services for children with disabilities  in specific categories, including adaptive, cognitive, communica­tions, physical or social-emotional  development. 

IDEA requires that eligible students ages 3-21 receive a written individualized education program (IEP) that provides for personalized instruction in order to make meaningful progress in school at no cost to the parents. This requirement makes IDEA the most powerful law for students with special needs.

What do both provide?

Both 504 Plans and IEPs require that a school provide specially designed instruction. Both have governmental oversight to make sure that schools do what’s necessary to give eligible students access to their education. Both provide protections before a disciplinary transfer of a disabled student can take place.

The bottom line

In general, 504 plans are most appropriate when the student has a physical disability that does not directly interfere with his ability to learn. Students who require a wheelchair or auditory enhancements but who otherwise can access the educational curriculum often find that a 504 plan protects their rights well.

When a student’s disability is cognitive, emotional, intellectual or developmental, however, a 504 plan is rarely adequate. Such students usually require curriculum modifications and “specially designed instruction” that come only with an IEP.

When a student has a learning disability, developmental delay, ADD/ADHD or another condition that directly impacts learning and behavior, it is very likely she is eligible for an IEP and her parents should not accept a 504 in its place.

Jennifer Nestle and Josh Kershenbaum are special education attorneys with the law firm Frankel & Kershenbaum in West Conshohocken, PA.

IEP and 504 Plan Comparison

IEP 504

• Student must receive appropriate individualized instruction in order to make meaningful progress.

• Only requires “equal access,” not individualization; no requirement to monitor the student’s progress.

• Protects students with behavioral issues by requiring schools to perform a functional behavior assessment (FBA) and develop a positive behavioral support plan (PBSP) to teach appropriate behavior.

• Students must not be punished or discriminated against based on their disability, but no FBA or positive support plan is required.

• Requires a special hearing for discipline procedures to decide if the child’s disability caused the misconduct. If so, most disciplinary transfers cannot take place.

• Similar protections.

• Student must be re-evaluated once every three years or sooner if needed or requested by a parent or teacher.

• Requires a “periodic” re-evaluation but law does not specify any time frame for that evaluation.

• Requires an impartial hearing by a neutral hearing officer appointed by the state if parents disagree with the identification, evaluation or placement of the student.

• Provides for impartial hearing but the hearing officer is appointed by the school. Parents can file a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights for violations. These can be very effective.

• Parents must receive ten days notice prior to any change in educational placement.

• No prior notice requirement.

Categories: Special Needs Parenting