Parents often wonder why both IEP and 504 plans exist, what the differences are, and which one is “better.”

Why are there both IEPs and 504 plans? 

The reason both plans exist is that they come from two different federal laws that were enacted for different purposes.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Section 504 plans arose from Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (RA) of 1973. The Rehabilitation Act was a precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The RA is a federal anti-discrimination law designed to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to federally-funded program and activities. This includes public schools, among other entities.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Individual Education Programs (IEPs) came along a little later as part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under the IDEA, public schools are required to identify and provide qualifying students with disabilities with specially designed instruction to meet their unique educational needs and to prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.

What is the difference between an IEP and a 504 plan?

504 plans. A 504 plan is designed to “level the playing field” to provide a disabled student with equal access to their educational environment. A typical 504 plan will consist of accommodations designed to provide a student with this access.
IEPs. An IEP does more than provide access. It provides specially designed instruction tailored to a disabled student’s unique educational needs. An IEP will typically include goals and services, as well as accommodations.
Both Section 504 and the IDEA require school divisions to provide qualifying students with disabilities with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Is an IEP better than a 504?

Not necessarily. It depends on the student’s needs. A student who needs specially designed instruction will not be well-served by a 504 plan. But not all students with disabilities need special education services, and 504 plans do serve many students very well. An IEP typically comes with more resources. IEPs are usually administered by special educators, while 504 plans are generally implemented by general education teachers who already have a lot on their plate.

Does an IEP have more “teeth” than a 504 plan?

No, this is a common misconception. IEPs have more procedural requirements for schools and more built-in rights for students and parents, but both IEPs and 504 plans are legally enforceable. 

Do students need both an IEP and a 504 plan?

No. Students who qualify for an IEP can get everything that would have been in the 504 plan added to their IEP. There is no need to have two separate documents. 

How do I know which is the right plan for my student? 

This is a student-specific inquiry. Parents can request an evaluation to see if their student qualifies for a 504 plan or an IEP. Some students who do not qualify for special education services through an IEP may qualify for a 504 plan. Parents may wish to consult one of these resources for more information. If parents are having difficulty accessing services or supports for your child, you may wish to consult with a special education attorney in your area.