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Understanding Special Education

My child is struggling in school and is being evaluated for special education services. What is special education? I have heard the terms IEP and a 504 Plan used interchangeably. Can you explain the difference between the two?

Understanding Special Education

What is special education?

Special education is a broad term used to describe specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of a child who has disabilities interfering with their learning. These services are provided by the public school system and are free of charge. Services can include instruction in the classroom, at home, in hospitals and residential settings. Learning disabilities cover a wide spectrum of disorders ranging from mild to severe. They can include mental, physical, behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Not every child with learning and attention issues qualifies for special education services under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As long as a student qualifies for special education, the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is mandated to be regularly maintained and updated up to the point of high school graduation, or prior to the 21st birthday. If a student in special education attends university upon graduation, the university's own system and procedures take over.

IDEA specifies 13 categories of special education. In order to qualify for special education, the IEP team must determine that a child has one of the following:

  • Autism
  • Blindness
  • Deafness
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Hearing Impairment
  • Intellectual Disability
  • Multiple Disabilities
  • Orthopedic Impairment
  • Other Health Impaired
  • Specific Learning Disability
  • Speech or Language Impairment
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Visual Impairment

What is the difference between an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and a 504 plan?

Both Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 plans offer formal help for K-12 students with learning and attention issues. The IEP is mandated under IDEA, whereas the 504 Plan is related to the federal anti-discrimination law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. They are similar in some ways, but quite different in others. The chart below compares them side-by-side to help you understand the differences.

A student cannot have both a 504 plan and an IEP. If the student is eligible for special education, all of the supports and services needed must be provided as related services attached to the IEP. A parent cannot opt for a 504 plan if the student is eligible for special education. The IEP allows for greater rights and entitlements under IDEA than allowed through the Section 504 Plan.

IEP504 Plan
Basic DescriptionA blueprint or plan for a child’s special education experience at school.A blueprint or plan for how a child will have access to learning at school.
What It Does

Provides individualized special education and related services to meet the unique needs of the child.

These services are provided at no cost to parents.

Provides services and changes to the learning environment to meet the needs of the child as adequately as other students.

As with IEPs, a 504 plan is provided at no cost to parents.
What Law Applies

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

This is a federal special education law for children with disabilities.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

This is a federal civil rights law to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.
Who Is Eligible

To get an IEP, there are two requirements:

A child has one or more of the 13 specific disabilities (anchor link to list below) listed in the IDEA. Learning and attention issues may qualify.

The disability must affect the child’s educational performance and/or ability to learn and benefit from the general education curriculum.

To get a 504 plan, there are two requirements:

A child has any disability, which can include many learning or attention issues.

The disability must interfere with the child’s ability to learn in a general education classroom. Section 504 has a broader definition of a disability than IDEA. That’s why a child who doesn’t qualify for an IEP might still be able to get a 504 plan.
Independent Educational Evaluation

Parents can ask the school district to pay for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) by an outside expert. The district doesn’t have to agree.

Parents can always pay for an outside evaluation themselves, but the district may not give it much weight.
Doesn’t allow parents to ask for an IEE. As with an IEP evaluation, parents can always pay for an outside evaluation themselves.
Who Creates the Program / Plan

There are strict legal requirements about who participates. An IEP is created by an IEP team that must include:

The child’s parent

At least one of the child’s general education teachers

At least one special education teacher

School psychologist or other specialist who can interpret evaluation results

A district representative with authority over special education services

With a few exceptions, the entire team must be present for IEP meetings.

The rules about who is on the 504 team are less specific than for an IEP.

A 504 plan is created by a team of people who are familiar with the child and who understand the evaluation data and special services options. This might include:

The child’s parent

General and special education teachers

The school principal
What's in the Program / Plan

The IEP sets learning goals for a child and describes the services the school will provide. It is a written document.

Here are some of the most important things the IEP must include:

The child’s present levels of academic and functional performance—how he or she is currently doing in school

Annual education goals for the child and how the school will track progress

The services the child will get—this may include special education, related, supplementary and extended school year services

The timing of services—when they start, how often they occur and how long they last

Any accommodations—changes to the child’s learning environment

Any modifications—changes to what the child is expected to learn or know

How the child will participate in standardized tests

How the child will be included in general education classes and school activities

There is no standard 504 plan. Unlike an IEP, a 504 plan does not have to be a written document.

A 504 plan generally includes the following:

Specific accommodations, supports or services for the child

Names of who will provide each service

Name of the person responsible for ensuring the plan is implemented
Parent Notice

When the school wants to change a child’s services or placement, it has to tell parents in writing before the change. This is called prior written notice. Notice is also required for any IEP meetings and evaluations.

Parents also have “stay put” rights to keep services in place while there is a dispute.
The school must notify parents about a new evaluation or a “significant change” in placement. Notice does not have to be in writing, but most schools do so anyway.
Parent ConsentA parent must consent in writing for the school to evaluate a child. Parents must also consent in writing before the school can provide services in an IEP.A parent’s consent is required for the school district to evaluate a child.
How Often It’s Reviewed and Revised

The IEP team must review the IEP at least once a year.

The student must be reevaluated every three years to determine whether services are still needed.
The rules vary by state. Generally, a 504 plan is reviewed each year and a reevaluation is done every three years or when needed.
How to Resolve Disputes

IDEA gives parents several specific ways to resolve disputes (usually in this order):

  • Mediation
  • Due process complaint
  • Resolution session
  • Civil lawsuit
  • State complaint
  • Lawsuit
Section 504 gives parents several options for resolving disagreements with the school:

  • Mediation
  • Alternative dispute resolution
  • Impartial hearing
  • Complaint to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR)
  • Lawsuit
Funding / Costs

Students receive these services at no charge.

States receive additional funding for eligible students.

Students receive these services at no charge.

States do not receive extra funding for eligible students. But the federal government can take funding away from programs (including schools) that don’t comply.

IDEA funds cannot be used to serve students with 504 plans.
Table Source:

As a parent or caregiver of a teenager with a disability, you may have heard the term 504 plan or Section 504 before, but not really understood what it means and how it can help your child. Section 504 is a civil rights federal law that public school districts are required to follow. This tip sheet from the Transitions Research and Training Center offers parents and guardians some information on 504 plans.

Developed by the Council on Children and Families and Funded by the Developmental Disabilities Planning Council