While there are some similarities between Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and 504 Plans, which is better depends on circumstances. Let’s look at a comparison.
The table below outlines some (but not all) of the differences between IEPs and 504 Plans, and it’s followed by considerations that might make one better than the other.
|What It Is||A specific, written plan for a student’s special education from kindergarten through grade 12 (or age 21, when required).||A plan detailing how a school will provide needed support and remove barriers for a student with a disability. The Plan has no age limit, can be effective up through college years and beyond, and can include work.|
|What It Does||Provides individualized special education and related services to meet the student’s specific needs.||Provides services and changes to the school/learning environment so the student can learn alongside his/her peers.|
|Prevailing Law||The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal special education law for students with disabilities.||Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal civil rights law to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.|
The student must have one or more of the 13 specific disabilities1 listed in IDEA
The student must need specialized instruction to make progress in school due to one or more disabilities that affect the student’s educational performance and/or ability to learn in and benefit from the general education curriculum.
The student can have any disability that substantially limits one or more basic life activities, including learning, reading, communicating, and thinking
The disability must interfere with the student’s ability to learn in a general education classroom.2
|Who’s Involved?||By law, an IEP is created by an IEP team that must include:
A 504 Plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the student and who understand the evaluation data and special services options. This might include:
It’s a written document that must include, among other things:
A 504 Plan doesn’t have to be a written document, and, while there is no standard 504 Plan, it typically includes:
|How Often It’s Reviewed||The IEP team must review the IEP at least once a year, and the student must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether services are still needed.||Generally, 504 Plans are reviewed each year, and a reevaluation is done every three years or when needed, although the rules vary by state.|
|Funding/Costs||States receive additional funding for students with IEPs, and students receive the services at no charge.||
States don’t receive extra funding for students with 504 Plans, but the federal government can take funding away from programs (including schools) that don’t meet their legal duty to serve students with disabilities.
Students receive these services at no charge.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) funds can’t be used to serve students with 504 Plans.
Examples of situations when a 504 Plan might be preferable:
- When accommodations are needed beyond 12th grade (or age 21) and/or in a federally funded work environment.3
- For students with ADD/ADHD who don’t need specialized instruction but would benefit from additional time, a less distracting environment for tests, and accommodations such as preferential seating or more frequent breaks.
- For students on the Autism Spectrum who are doing okay academically but need social skills assistance or specific accommodations.
Conversely, an IEP is a better option for students who need more than just accommodations in order to do well in school. Further, IEPs often mandate special education, and that opens the door to multiple related potential benefits.
1 Here are the 13 categories of special education as defined by IDEA:
- Emotional Disturbance
- Hearing Impairment
- Intellectual Disability
- Multiple Disabilities
- Orthopedic Impairment
- Other Health Impairment
- Specific Learning Disability
- Speech or Language Impairment
- Traumatic Brain Injury
- Visual Impairment
Students whose conditions don’t substantially limit a major life activity are excluded from eligibility. For example, the mere medical diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) isn’t sufficient for students to qualify under Section 504 if the student has no problems in school and can’t demonstrate a need for special services in the classroom. Many students with ADD/ADHD don’t need special services or special education classes but might, instead, be given coping mechanisms that successfully manage the disorder in mainstream classrooms.
Conversely, students with severe ADD/ADHD may need special services in school, as is typically determined through formal assessments, reviews of educational records, formal observations, medical data, and parent and teacher reports, among other things. Because their effects would significantly impact students’ abilities to learn, inabilities to attend to instruction or to tolerate a classroom environment are examples of problems that could qualify a student with ADD/ADHD as disabled under Section 504.
3 Section 504 applies to public and private elementary and secondary schools, as well as to colleges and employers that receive federal funding.