5 legal differences with 504 plans and IEPs to help you advocate
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Parents of students with disabilities have likely heard of both the IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. But as there is overlap between the two laws it can be confusing.
The IDEA is a comprehensive statute that specifically identifies procedures schools must follow for students who qualify for special education. Section 504 is a brief anti-discrimination statute that ensures that persons with disabilities are not excluded from benefits by publicly funded entities including schools. Section 504 has a few regulations that further expand on the rights of students with disabilities but it is not nearly as detailed as the IDEA including many specific deadlines with which the school must comply.
What do Section 504 and the IDEA have in common: Both laws address the needs of students with disabilities and provide protections for them. Both laws require schools to provide for a free appropriate public education (or FAPE) to students with disabilities even though their definitions of FAPE differ. Both a 504 plan and an IEP must be developed with the cooperation and participation of the parents and/or the student.
For questions about Section 504 and the IDEA, it is important to remember that every student who is on an IEP and receiving special education is also protected under Section 504. But a student only on a 504 plan is not entitled to the protections of the IDEA.
An example of a student who might need a 504 plan but not an IEP is a student with diabetes who requires supports and accommodations due to the medical condition but is able to function in school without academic or social-emotional supports. That student would not need an IEP but a 504 plan would likely be appropriate.
Here are 5 key differences between these two statutes that you should know to help advocate for your child.
1. Evaluations: Both Section 504 and the IDEA require that a student be evaluated before being found eligible under either law. The IDEA has very specific requirements about what initial evaluations must include. Section 504 does require an evaluation as well but, often schools will rely on outside medical diagnoses provided by the parents to find a student eligible for a 504 plan.
Section 504 requires that a school re-evaluate a student before any significant change in placement. The IDEA does not, but does require re-evaluations at least every three years.
2. FAPE in 504 v. IDEA: Some schools view a 504 plan as a first step to try before providing special education. But a student is not required to be on a 504 plan before getting an IEP. The decision between a 504 plan or an IEP should be based on the student’s needs. If a student needs special education because of their disability, the school is required to develop an IEP.
Both laws have a FAPE requirement that has been described by Courts as “overlapping but different.” 504 FAPE requires a comparison between services for students with disabilities and students without disabilities because a school must meet the needs of students with disabilities as adequately as it meets the needs of students without disabilities. But FAPE under the IDEA is provided when a school develop (and implements) an IEP that is designed to meet the student’s individual educational needs.
The main way a school ensures FAPE under Section 504 is with a 504 plan. But a school can comply with Section 504 by developing an IEP in compliance with the IDEA if the student is eligible for an IEP. So while the two definitions of FAPE are different, there can be overlap.
3. Long-term suspension or expulsion: Before imposing a long term suspension on (or expelling) students with disabilities, the school is required to conduct a manifestation determination review. This involves determining whether the conduct leading to the discipline was related to the student’s disability. If it was, the school cannot impose the discipline and must take other steps. This is true for students on a 504 plan or on an IEP. The Section 504 protections are modeled after the IDEA protections but again the IDEA’s protections are more specific.
In addition, the IDEA may provide these protections for students who are (or should be) suspected of having a disability but who have not yet been found eligible for special education including when a student is being evaluated. These protections are not afforded to a student not yet eligible under Section 504.
4. Disputes: If you have a dispute over a 504 plan, you can file a request for hearing with your school. The school district or charter school is required to have procedures to address these disputes. Usually the school will select and appoint a hearing officer to hear and decide the dispute.
With an IEP, if you have a dispute, you can file a state complaint or a due process complaint. The procedures for those complaints are spelled out in the IDEA. In Arizona, due process hearings are heard by an administrative law judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings. A key right for a student on an IEP in a due process complaint is “stay put.” This protection prevents a school from changing the student’s placement while the complaint is pending. Section 504 does not provide that protection.
Students on IEPs or 504 plans are also entitled to bring complaints with the Office of Civil Rights if the school is discriminating against the student.
The law limits the time to file any disputes against a school district or charter school, so if you think a school is not complying with the IDEA or Section 504, it is important to proceed without delay to preserve any potential claims you might have.
5. When do the protections end? The IDEA covers education of students with disabilities on IEPs from age 3 to graduation from high school or up to age 22. The IDEA does not provide any protections for students in college. There is no FAPE requirement for colleges under Section 504. But students with disabilities in most colleges are required to be provided with accommodations under Section 504.
This is a brief overview of some of the differences between these two laws. The requirements in this area of the law are complex and can vary based on the jurisdiction you live in. If you have questions or concerns about your student with disabilities, Section 504 or the IDEA, in Arizona, you should contact a special education attorney.