In many ways, an IEP and a 504 plan have the same objectives: to provide protection for a student with a disability and ensure they have access to a learning environment that meets their needs. Beyond that, they present a convoluted array of differences that can be difficult to untangle. Parents of children with disabilities should learn the nuances of both an individualized education program or IEP and a 504 plan to make the best choice for their child.
An individualized education program (IEP) provides for personalized instruction for children with specific disabilities. Established by Congress in 1990 through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), IEPs are designed to provide qualified students with a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) possible. States receive additional funding from the federal government for those students who have IEPs.
Not every child with a disability or learning disorder is eligible for an IEP. In the IDEA legislation, the federal government listed 13 categories of disabilities that may qualify a child for an IEP. They include autism, blindness, deafness, emotional challenges, intellectual disabilities, specific learning disabilities and traumatic brain injuries. However, not all children with those conditions qualify for services. Eligible students must need special education services to succeed in school.
The first step to requesting an IEP is an independent educational evaluation (IEE). Parental consent is necessary before a child can go through a valuation. While parents can request that the school district pays for this assessment, districts are not obligated to cover the costs. Parents can choose to pay for an evaluation themselves, but its results may not have as much weight as one commissioned by the school district.
If there is a determination that the child needs an IEP, a team will be assembled to draft its contents. The IEP team must include at least one of the student’s parents or legal guardians, one or more of that child’s general education teachers, one or more special education teachers, a psychologist or other expert and a representative from the school district. In general, the entire team must be present at each meeting.
This team will develop a written document that establishes learning goals and outlines the services that the school will provide to help the child meet them. An IEP must determine the student’s current academic and functional achievement levels, annual goals and a way to track them, details about the services the child will receive, any accommodations or modifications that are needed, a plan for how the child will participate in standardized testing and plans for how the student can be included in general education classes and activities. A parent must give their written consent before the child can begin receiving services.
An IEP must undergo review by the entire IEP team at least once each year. To continue receiving an IEP, a child must be reevaluated every three years to assess what services, supports and accommodations, if any, are still needed. Eligible children can continue receiving special education services through high school, but an IEP does not transfer to any post-secondary programs like colleges or trade schools.
If school officials want to make changes to a child’s IEP, they must inform the parents in writing before they make any changes. Parents also must receive prior notice of all IEP meetings and evaluations. In the event of a dispute, parents have the right to maintain services while they contest the school’s planned changes. Parents have several escalating options to resolve disputes including mediation, a written complaint, a resolution session, a lawsuit or a complaint filed with the state.
For children who don’t need special education services, a 504 plan can grant them the necessary accommodations to learn alongside their general education peers. These plans don’t provide for individualized instruction but instead outline how the school will remove barriers to learning for a child with a disability. Named for a section of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 504 plans require schools to provide necessary accommodations at no cost to families.
While states do not receive specific funding for 504 services, the federal government can take funding away from states that do not comply. To qualify for a 504 plan, a child must have a diagnosed disability that impacts a major life function. Section 504 contains a much broader definition of what constitutes a disability than IDEA, so some children who are not eligible for an IEP may still qualify for a 504 plan.
The requirements and procedures for a 504 plan are less stringent than those for an IEP. A child does not need to have an independent evaluation before receiving a 504 plan. Parents or school officials can initiate a 504 plan by requesting one in writing through the district’s 504 coordinator, who is often also the IEP coordinator. As with an IEP, a parent must consent to their child to undergo a review for a 504 plan. A meeting will then be held to determine if the student qualifies for accommodations and, if so, what supports are needed.
A 504 plan is developed by a group of people who know the child and understand the options for accommodations. Unlike with an IEP, there are no specific requirements regarding who must participate. The team typically includes the child’s parent, a few teachers and the school principal.
The requirements for the plan itself are also less formalized.
The Rehabilitation Act does not outline specific components that must be included in a 504 plan. Most plans will consist of a list of specific accommodations or support services that will be provided, the names of the people who will provide those accommodations and a specific person who will be responsible for implementing the plan.
While the rules that govern 504 plans vary by state, the plan typically undergoes a review once a year. Reevaluations are conducted every three years or more often if needed. Unlike an IEP, a 504 plan can actually follow a child through college if needed.
Parents must be notified of these evaluations or any significant change in the accommodations. As with IEP disputes, parents have several options to resolve a concern regarding their child’s 504 plan. They can seek mediation, participate in alternative dispute resolution, request an impartial hearing, report a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) or file a lawsuit.
How To Choose Between An IEP And A 504 Plan
Parents should note that a child cannot have both an IEP and a 504 plan. An IEP takes precedence over a 504 plan if your child is eligible under the more stringent IDEA criteria. If your child is eligible for special education services, a 504 plan would be redundant; its contents would already be incorporated into your child’s IEP.
While designations are not determined by disability, 504 plans are often appropriate for students who have physical challenges that do not directly impact their ability to learn. These plans provide accommodations in a general education setting and protect the student’s rights. However, a big difference between an IEP and a 504 plan is that the 504 plan does not provide the individualized services that many children with intellectual, emotional or developmental disabilities need.
The individualized instruction that comes with special education is only available to students who have IEPs. If your child has a disability that causes learning or behavioral challenges, accommodations provided in a general education classroom may not be adequate. Children with disabilities that directly affect their ability to succeed in school are typically eligible for an IEP and a 504 plan should not be considered a substitute for special education services.
At Lexington Services, we provide individualized educational, behavioral and social support for children with disabilities and their families. Our Lexington Life Academy specializes in teaching children with autism, developmental disabilities and other learning challenges the skills they need to succeed. Click here to learn more about our schools or the other support services we offer.
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