The differences between an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) and a 504 Plan can be confusing. They can contain a lot of the same content and ultimately serve the same purpose. Both documents put formal supports in place to help students in school, and both require parental consent to implement. They are also both available at no cost to the family, and are both generally reviewed annually. But there are also some major differences between the two documents.
One major difference between IEPs and 504s is in the laws that support them. IEPs exist under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). The law that applies to 504s is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The former is a federal law ensuring that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education that includes the services and supports they need. The latter was the first civil rights law to come into effect protecting people with disabilities from disability-based discrimination.
Who is Eligible
In order to get an IEP, a student must have one of 13 designated disabilities in order to qualify. A 504 plan only requires that students have any sort of diagnosed disability.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the contents of the two documents. An IEP is organized and written in a very specific way. Among other things, it must include the student’s present levels of performance, both academic and functional; this means how the student is doing in school with regard to academic and non-academic parts of his or her day. This section also includes information about how the student is doing socially. Within each section, there are specific questions and prompts that need to be answered, like the student’s academic strengths and interests. IEPs also contain annual goals that need to be written in a very specific way, including benchmarks and methods of measuring progress. Another section of the IEP states which related services the student will receive, if any, as well as how often and when they begin. An IEP includes the extent to which students will participate in the general education curriculum, and whether they will participate in or be exempt from standardized testing.
A 504 Plan is much less structured. While an IEP typically follows a template, there isn’t a standard format for a 504 Plan. Typically, the plan includes the team members who are working together to create the plan, a description of the student’s needs, and a list of accommodations that will be put in place for that student. Depending on the complexity of the student’s disability, the 504 plan may vary in complexity. It is a much more open-ended document than an IEP.
While schools receive additional funds for all students with an IEP, they do not receive additional funds for students with 504 Plans. In fact, schools can actually have funding taken away if the government deems that they are not adequately serving kids with disabilities to the full extent of what the law requires.
The Bottom Line
While the two documents are very different, they both ultimately serve the same purpose, which is to provide students with disabilities the supports they need to succeed.