Does Your Child Need an IEP, or is a 504 Enough?

June 15, 2014

teenage girl wearing backpack

How can you determine whether a 504 plan or an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) is appropriate for a student with a disability? By understanding the different protections afforded to students under Section 504 plans and IDEA, you can make an informed decision about what your child needs.

Section 504 Section

504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is civil rights law that protects people with disabilities who participate in programs and activities that receive federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education. Public schools are among the agencies that must comply with Section 504.

The law protects students against discrimination related to their disability. For example, the school cannot exclude a student from a field trip or require them to be educated separately from other students. The law requires that schools provide reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities so that they can fully participate in regular education classes and activities with their non-disabled peers. Accommodations are provided under a 504 plan, which is developed under the general education program.

A 504 plan ensures that a child with a disability has equal access to a free appropriate public education. It does not require schools to provide a student direct or indirect services through a special education program. Schools must provide accommodations, modifications and related services as needed to ensure that students can access their education to the same extent as non-disabled peers.

Reasonable accommodations are decided on an individual basis, and may include considerations related to the student’s classroom environment (such as not seating a distractible student near a noisy area), assignments (e.g., allowing a student extra time to complete work or breaking assignments into smaller components, or not penalizing for handwriting), test taking (e.g., providing extra time, reading test items to a student) and other accommodations related to the student’s emotional or behavioral needs.

Section 504 requires the school to devise a system of safeguards such as parental notice of evaluation or placement decision, parental review of records or an impartial hearing for appeals. However, they do not need to follow the more detailed procedural safeguards that are required under IDEA.

No state or federal funding is provided to assist in complying with Section 504. All related costs are the obligation of the local school.

A list of frequently asked questions about section 504 is available on the U.S. Department of Education’s website.


IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is a federal law that requires school districts to provide special education and related services to students age 3-21 with certain types of disabilities, when the disability adversely impacts the student’s learning.

IDEA requires schools to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) which provides for specialized instruction and related services to meet the student’s unique educational needs that result from their disability. Special education teachers provide direct services to the student and consult with the regular classroom teachers.

A student does not have to be placed in a separate classroom to be eligible for an IEP. IDEA requires that students are educated in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) with supplementary aids and services. Individualized services and supports based on the child’s needs are to be provided regardless of the placement.

A student participating in special education through an IEP is protected under both IDEA and all Section 504 laws. The reverse is not true for students with 504 plans.

In addition, IDEA has a more elaborate system of safeguards to protect the parent and child. They include: prior written notice of all evaluations; changes to IEP and placement changes; the right to an independent evaluation at the public school’s expense; arbitration or mediation if the parent and school do not agree on the plan; and the right to a due process hearing.