As an alternative school guidance counselor, I have become very familiar with the different ways public schools try to accommodate students with disabilities. The goal of these plans is to "level the playing field" and give all children access to a "free and appropriate" education. Getting the appropriate accommodations for your student can be daunting at first, but once you're in the system, you'll see the hidden rules and play the game.
Rule #1: Public education loves acronyms.
What is I.D.E.A.?
I.D.E.A. stands for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. IDEA covers students who qualify for special education. If a student is found to have a disability (i.e. "qualifies"), then they are eligible to receive special education and/or related services (e.g., speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, etc). Every child attending a public school program that is found eligible to receive special education services must have an IEP or an Individualized Education Plan.
What is an IEP?
According to the Department of Education, an IEP is an Individualized Education Plan that is created when a student meets the IDEA guidelines, qualifying them for special education because they have one of the specified types of disabilities. The goal of the services on an IEP are to help a child succeed in the school setting.
What is a 504 Plan?
According to the Department of Education a “Section 504” is a broad federal civil rights law that protects all individuals with a handicap. This law is often enforced through the creation of a 504 plan. Often times if a child does not qualify for special education services under IDEA (with an IEP), they may still qualify for assistance through a 504 plan. 504 plans are put in place to ensure that schools are non-discriminatory.
Rule #2: Follow the money
Five differences between IEP and 504 Plans:
1. An IEP is for children who qualify for special education services. To qualify, your child must have a documented learning disability, developmental delay, speech impairment or significant behavioral disturbance. Special education is education that offers an individualized learning format (e.g., small group, one-on-one). In contrast, a 504 Plan does not include special education services. Instead, a 504 Plan involves classroom accommodations, such as behavioral modification and environmental supports.
2. An IEP requires a formal evaluation process as well as a multi-person team meeting to construct the plan. A 504 Plan is less formal and usually involves a meeting with the parents and teacher(s). Both plans are documented and recorded.
3. An IEP outlines specific, measurable goals for each child. These goals are monitored to ensure appropriate gains. A 504 Plan does not contain explicit goals.
4. A 504 Plan does not cost the school or district any additional money to provide. On the other hand, an IEP requires school funds to construct and execute. No additional money goes to the child's school for 504 plans so you're less likely to get services like speech, occupational, or physical therapy (although this varies from school to school).
Rule 3: No measurement, no management.
5. IEP's are more likely to be fulfilled because measurement and accountability are built into them. 504 plans are only reviewed once a year. With either plan type, it's vital to have a student advocate.
Rule 4: Work with the system not against the system.
Advocate on behalf of your child, but also trust that the educators want them to learn. Too often I've seen plans fail because parents become over-involved/defensive with the school. When advocates burn relationships with educators the student suffers.
Rule 5: A student cannot have both plan types at the same time.
Most students do not qualify for an IEP, but many can qualify for a 504 plan. My suggestion is to meet with your child's teachers to decide which (if any) plan is necessary. Most teachers will accommodate without needing an official education plan.
Posted by Joshua Wilson, MSW