IEP vs. 504 Plan: What’s the Difference?

Without a doubt, one of the most common questions parents have regarding special education is, “what’s the difference between an IEP and 504?”  This is understandable as each has their own nuances and apply protections differently.  Let’s take a look.

IEP vs. 504: What is the legal difference?

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) falls under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and is enforced by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services.  This is a federal funding statute requiring all states to follow the law and all of its conditions for funding special education programs in that state.  Each state educational agency is responsible for administering IDEA and distributing the funds for special education programs. This statute is a grant statute and therefore attaches many specific conditions to the recipient of IDEA funds.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal civil rights statue guided by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and enforced by the Office for Civil Rights.  Section 504 prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education. In essence, all recipients of federal funds must provide non-discrimination services, including reasonable accommodations.  A 504 Plan requires schools to provide students with disabilities access to the same activities and programs as their non-disabled peers (think… level the playing field).  504 eligible students must have equal participation and opportunity for benefit.  Unlike IDEA, Section 504 is an antidiscrimination law and does not provide any type of funding.

Where does it apply?

The IDEA applies to all state and local public schools (including charter schools). Private schools are not covered under IDEA and therefore do not receiving funding for special education.

Section 504 applies to all federally funded programs, including all public schools and charter schools.  Section 504 also applies to private schools that receive federal financial assistance, including direct Title I funds. 

Who is eligible?

To be eligible under the IDEA, two requirements must be met:

  • Your child has one or more of the 13 disabilities listed below, AND
    1. Autism
    2. Deaf-Blindness
    3. Deafness
    4. Emotional Disturbance
    5. Hearing Impairment
    6. Intellectual Disability
    7. Multiple Disabilities
    8. Orthopedic Impairment
    9. Other Health Impairment
    10. Specific Learning Disability
    11. Speech or Language Impairment
    12. Traumatic Brain Injury
    13. Visual Impairment including Blindness
  • The disability must impair your child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum. Your child must need specialized instruction to make progress in school. Note that “educational performance” is not limited to academic performance! Under IDEA Section 300.324 it clearly states to take academic, developmental and functional performance into account when developing an IEP.

To be eligible under Section 504, your child must:

  • Have a documented physical or mental impairment, AND
  • The impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities
    • Includes but not limited to caring for one’s self, performing manual talks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, learning, working, concentrating, thinking, communicating and reading.

How does your child start receiving services?

Under the IDEA, the school conducts a special education evaluation and develops an IEP.  Unlike Section 504, parental approval and involvement is required.  Additionally, written notice to parents is required before the initial evaluation and before any change in services or placement.  This notice must describe any evaluation procedures the school proposes to use.  When choosing evaluation measures, schools must use a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather functional, developmental, and academic information about the child, including information provided by the parent.  This information is used to determine whether the child is a child with a disability and if so, to develop the IEP. 

Evaluation materials must include those tailored to assess specific areas of educational need and not just those designed to provide a single general intelligence quotient.  The child must be assessed in all areas related to the suspected disability, including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social and emotional status, general intelligence, academic performance, communicative status, and motor abilities.

Under Section 504, the school conducts an evaluation for services and creates a 504 plan listing all the accommodations your child will receive.  Unlike IEP development under IDEA, parental involvement is not required for a 504 plan.  The school must notify families about an evaluation or a “significant change” in placement but it does not have to be in writing.

Under the statute, schools must establish procedures for initial evaluations and periodic re-evaluations of students who need or are believed to need special education and/or related services because of their disability.  At the elementary and secondary education level, the amount of information required to evaluate the student is determined by a multi-disciplinary committee. Section 504 requires that schools draw from multiple sources in the evaluation process.  The information obtained from all of these sources must be documented and all significant factors related to the student’s learning process must be considered. These sources and factors may include teacher recommendations, aptitude and achievement tests, physical condition, social and cultural background, and adaptive behavior.

Types of Services

An IEP is a document that is designed by the IEP team [including parents] to meet the child’s unique educational needs through special education services. It lays out the necessary supports and services that are agreed upon by the IEP team.  Remember, special education is a set of services, not a specified physical location for your child to go. The services put into place and agreed upon by the IEP team must align with the goals and objectives for your child.  

A 504 plan provides accommodations to students like extended time, frequent breaks, fidgets or modified homework assignments.  What a 504 Plan cannot provide is specialized instruction or related services, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy or physical therapy.  

Dispute Resolution

The IDEA gives families several ways to resolve disputes.  Most disputes start at the mediation phase where you and the school district meet with a mediator to resolve the dispute.  This is informal and can quite often bring about the resolution needed. 

If mediation fails, or one party does not agree to mediation, then the next step would be a due process complaint.  This is pretty much what it sounds like: a letter you file regarding matters of conflict related to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to the child.  IDEA requires schools to have procedures in place that make due process available to parents.  Other avenues to resolve disputes under IDEA is a civil lawsuit or a state complaint.

Section 504 also gives families several options for resolving disputes with the school.  These include alternative dispute resolution, an impartial hearing, a complaint to the Office for Civil Rights or a lawsuit.

Contrary to many articles out there, a 504 plan is legally binding.  What is important to note is that although both an IEP and 504 have paths towards conflict resolution, a 504 plan has fewer procedural safeguards. This is evident in the statute.  Under the IDEA, the school must review the IEP annually at a minimum.  A 504 does not have that mandate.  The IDEA also states that an IEP must have a progress monitoring provision that requires how the child’s parents will be regularly informed of the child’s progress toward the goals and the extent to which progress is considered sufficient.  Under Section 504, this is not required.  Therefore, both an IEP and 504 are legally binding but an IEP has more “teeth” so to speak and makes it easier to show where the school might have failed in their duties under statute.