August 30, 2021

What’s the Difference Between a 504 and an IEP?

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Photo by Mahbod Akhzami on Unsplash
Some basic information for anyone with 504s or IEPs on their mind this back-to-school season.

For students who have complex needs, disabilities and/or difficulty with school, there are two traditional options through which families in the United States can seek accommodations and specialized instruction. Both IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and 504s are provided to students at no cost, but there are some significant differences between these services that may make one or the other a better fit.

For families, the process of securing an IEP or 504 can be confusing, time-consuming and emotional, to say the least. For families of students with a rare disease that impacts learning, this process can involve educating school staff about a disease they’re encountering for the first time. This extensive explaining and clarifying, even under the best of circumstances, can be exhausting and overwhelming for families affected by rare disease.

As just one place to start, we’ve broken down some basic facts and key differences between IEPs and 504s below. Check out our Further Reading section for more detailed information about advocating for students with rare diseases and choosing between plans.

Individualized Education Plans (IEP)

IEPs are provided for by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal education law for children with disabilities. There are two main requirements: The child must have one or more of 13 disabilities listed by the IDEA, which include speech or language impairment, intellectual disability, autism and orthopedic impairment, among others. And the disability must affect the child’s ability to benefit from the general education curriculum such that specialized education is necessary.

Families can ask their school district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) in order to determine a student’s eligibility, though the school district does not have to agree to do so, nor does the district have to honor the conclusions of an evaluation paid for by the family.

The IEP has strict criteria that determine who can participate in the student’s plan. The plan is created by an IEP team, which must include the following: the child’s parent or caregiver, at least one of the student’s general education teachers, at least one special education teacher, a school psychologist or similar specialist and a district representative with authority over special education services. This team must review the IEP plan at least once a year, and the student must be reevaluated every three years to decide whether the plan is still needed.

The IEP is a standardized written document that sets learning goals and outlines the specific services, accommodations and/or modifications that will be provided by the school.

Schools must notify families of any desired change to a student’s services or placement, and parents/caregivers must consent in order for the school to evaluate the child.

The IDEA is designed so that families have several options through which they can resolve disputes that may arise with the school district, which include mediation, due process complaint, resolution session, civil lawsuit, state complaint and lawsuit. An IEP provides for specialized instruction for K-12 students, while a 504 plan can be used through college.

504 Plan

The 504 Plan is named for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law designed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination. In order to qualify for a 504, a student can have any disability, and the law provides a wider definition of disability than the IEP. By the 504 definition, a disability must substantially limit one or more basic life activities, which can include learning, reading, communicating and thinking. Students who don’t qualify for an IEP may be able to qualify for a 504.

The 504 does not allow families to ask for an independent external evaluation, though families can pay for one themselves.

The 504 is less stringent about the members of a student’s 504 plan than the IEP is. Members must be people who are familiar with the child, and who understand the evaluation criteria and the special service options available. This may include the child’s parents/caregivers, teachers (general education and/or special education) and other school district authority figures, like the principal.

Unlike the IEP, the 504 does not need to be a written document, and is not standardized. That said, there are general criteria for a 504 plan’s contents, including the specific services and accommodations to be provided for the student, the names of the people who will provide these services and the name of the person responsible for the plan’s implementation.

As with the IEP, schools must notify families of any desired evaluation and/or changes to a student’s 504, and a parent or caregiver’s consent is required prior to evaluation.

The rules for 504 evaluation vary between states, but generally speaking, plans are reviewed annually, and reevaluations are done as needed.

504 plans ensure that families have options for disagreements that may arise with their schools. These include mediation, alternative dispute resolution, impartial hearing, Complaint to the Office for Civil Rights (or OCR) and lawsuit. Unlike an IEP (which ends after grade 12), a 504 can serve K-12 and college students.

In sum

States receive additional funding for students with IEPs, but do not receive additional funds for students with 504 plans. The government can, however, reduce or eliminate funding from schools that don’t meet their legal duty to serve children with disabilities. The plans are not complementary — that is, IDEA funds can’t be used to serve students with existing 504 plans.

Children eligible for a 504 plan or an IEP are entitled by law to a Free, Appropriate Public Education (or FAPE) individualized to the student’s needs, and designed to help the student make appropriate progress.

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