Students with LD: What’s the Difference Between an IEP and a 504 Plan?

By Rhoda Cummings, Ed.D., author of The Survival Guide for Kids with LD

Students with LD: What’s the Difference Between an IEP and a 504 Plan?In my book, The Survival Guide for Kids with LD, I describe LD as a learning difference instead of a learning disability. That’s because kids with LD are smart and can learn. It’s just that they learn differently from other kids. Most kids with LD qualify for special educational services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Kids with learning differences like ADHD or Asperger’s syndrome may not be eligible for services under IDEA, but they may get help through Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Both IDEA and Section 504 are federal civil rights laws that entitle children with disabilities to a “free and appropriate public education” just like students who don’t have a disability. Both laws require schools to develop education plans for each child who has a disability, including children with LD.

For the parent of a child with LD or someone who works with kids with LD, knowledge of these laws and their educational plans can make you an effective advocate for kids with LD.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
IDEA is a federal special education law that covers special education for children from birth through age twenty-one. Specific learning disability is included as one of the categories of disabilities in the law. IDEA also requires schools to provide related services that may be necessary for the child to benefit from special education such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling and psychological services, social services, and transportation.

IDEA requires that an Individual Education Plan (IEP) be developed for each child in special education.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504)
Section 504 is a federal civil rights law that protects the rights of individuals with disabilities in public institutions that receive federal funds such as public schools, colleges and universities, and trade and vocational schools. Section 504 ensures protection for anyone who has a physical or mental impairment that “substantially limits one or more major life activities such as caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, reading, writing, learning, and working.” Section 504 also provides for related services that may support the student’s education.

Unlike IDEA, a child does not need special education to receive services under Section 504, and the law applies over his or her lifespan.

Section 504 requires that a 504 plan be developed for each individual receiving educational or related services.

Differences Between the IEP and the Section 504 Plan
Both the IEP and Section 504 plan are developed to ensure that eligible students receive an appropriate educational program, but there are important differences between the two.

The IEP, a major provision of IDEA, has specific requirements:

  • The IEP is written after an extensive evaluation that assesses all areas related to the suspected disability. IDEA requires that parents must be notified in writing and give their permission before the formal evaluation occurs. Evaluation for a student with LD may include teacher observations, a test of intellectual abilities, achievement tests in reading or math, or a speech/language evaluation.
  • If evaluation results indicate that the child has a “learning disability” as described by IDEA, an IEP team meets to map out a special education plan for the child. The team includes the parent; the special education teacher; a regular education teacher; a person who can interpret the assessment information, such as a school psychologist or diagnostician; a school district representative, such as a principal or special education director; and the child if she or he is sixteen or older. Parents also are welcome to invite a parent advocate or friend.
  • After the IEP team meets and decides on the special education plan, an IEP is written that spells out the child’s specific special education program. The IEP must include the following information:
    1. How the child’s disability affects his or her performance in the regular education classroom
    2. The annual goals the child will meet in his or her educational program
    3. How to measure whether the child meets the annual goals
    4. The special education and related services that will be provided
    5. The modifications needed for the child’s success in the regular classroom
    6. The time the child will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular classroom and extracurricular activities
    7. Special accommodations the child may need to participate in statewide testing or a statement of why the child cannot participate
    8. The dates for when special education services will start and the frequency, location, and duration of the services
    9. For students sixteen and older, a description of transition services needed to prepare them for life after high school

The IEP team meets annually to evaluate if the annual goals have been met and if the plan should be modified.

IDEA does not require all students with LD to be educated in the regular classroom. Depending on the severity of the learning problem, a continuum of services must be made available, including the regular classroom, the resource room, the special education classroom, or a special day school.

The Section 504 Plan
Some students with LD may not meet the eligibility requirements under IDEA but may receive services under Section 504. The 504 plan is much less specific than the IEP about the requirements for the child’s education. However, like the IEP, the 504 plan requires the child to be evaluated, and a 504 committee develops a written plan for how the child will receive appropriate educational and related services. The 504 plan includes the following requirements:

  • The child is evaluated to determine eligibility for services. Parents must be notified of the evaluation, but they don’t have to give written consent.
  • A written education plan will be made that describes the special educational accommodations. The 504 plan is much less specific than the IEP. The 504 team may use an IEP format, but there is no legal requirement to do so.
  • Parents must be notified that a 504 plan has been developed for their child, but they do not have to give written consent for implementation of the plan.
  • The school must provide an impartial hearing if parents disagree with the evaluation, identification, or educational placement of the student.
  • Children usually receive specialized instruction and special accommodations for learning in the regular classroom. There is not a specific designation for a continuum of services.

Questions: How Do You Learn Best?The major differences between the IEP and the 504 plan are in the flexibility of procedures. The 504 plan has less rigid requirements than the IEP for school personnel to implement the plan and monitor the student’s progress. The advantage of Section 504 is that it protects the rights of individuals with disabilities over their lifespans and includes access to postsecondary education, employment services, and public facilities such as buildings, parks, and transportation.

Remember! If a child with a learning difference is not eligible for special education under IDEA, he or she may receive special accommodations from Section 504.

Rhoda CummingsRhoda Cummings, Ed.D., is professor emeritus in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has over thirty years’ experience teaching undergraduate and graduate students about students with learning disabilities. The author of numerous articles and books for parents and young people, Rhoda is also the mother of a grown son with LD. She lives and writes on the Oregon coast.

The Survival Guide for Kids with LDRhoda Cummings is the author of The Survival Guide for Kids with LD.

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