We have written before about Section 504, the federal law that can be used to provide school services for some children. But we know that parents -- and schools -- are still confused about what this law can and cannot do for their child and when and how it should be applied. So, we thought it would be helpful to answer some of the questions parents have recently asked.
Q: What is the difference between 504 and "Special Education"?
A: Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which provides for "special education services," both are federal laws which apply to every state. The main difference is that the IDEA requires that a student both have a "disability" and because of that disability require special education services. Section 504 also requires that a student have a "disability" but once the student is shown to have a disability, it is not necessary to show that he or she needs special education services.
Q: That's confusing. So how do I know if my child needs a 504 Plan or an IEP, the Individual Education Program provided by the IDEA?
A: For some students, it's an easy call. Those with health issues, such as asthma, allergies, or diabetes, will need a 504 Plan to help manage their medical issues, even if they have no significant learning problem. Some students with attention difficulties that do not significantly interfere with their educational progress will do fine with a 504 Plan. But, if a student needs special education services -- services such as reading instruction, a smaller class setting, resource room -- or related services, such as speech therapy, occupational therapy, or physical therapy, then that student should be receiving his or her services under the IDEA.
Q: Does it make a difference how my child receives services?
A: It often does. The IDEA requires parental involvement and consent in setting up the services and goals for a child who receives services under that law. That means you, the parent, can help shape your child's education. It also requires the school to at least consider any Independent Educational Evaluations you may choose to submit. In contrast, 504 services are provided under a 504 Plan that is set up without mandated parental input. The protections and procedures for parents who disagree with a school providing IDEA services are more extensive than under Section 504.
Q: My child's school says he isn't doing poorly enough to qualify for IDEA services, but they will give him a 504 Plan. What should I do?
A: The IDEA gives states some leeway in determining how to decide whether a student needs special education services. Some states, like New Jersey, still use what is called a "discrepancy model" that requires students to show a significant gap between their ability (usually measured by things like IQ tests) and their classroom performance. Other states, like New York, are moving to a different model, called Response to Intervention, which is a more flexible way to determine who needs special services. While we believe that students who truly need special education should receive those services under the IDEA, it is reasonable to accept the 504 Plan and see if it provides enough support. If it does not, and the school still does not want to provide IDEA services, it might be time to consider seeking advocacy assistance to consider your options.
Q: Can my child have both a 504 Plan and an IEP under the IDEA?
A: While this is theoretically possible, it is not something we recommend or something that most schools will do. The IDEA is broader in both the services it provides and the protections it provides for parental rights. Once a student is classified under the IDEA, he or she is entitled to all the services he or she needs to make education accessible. So, if there is a medical or attention issue, that can be dealt with as part of the IEP. Once you have an IEP there is no need for a 504 Plan.
Q: Why does my child's school seem so reluctant to provide an IEP, while they are pretty free with 504 Plans?
A: Because they are accountable to the State for the number of students that are classified under the IDEA. If they have more classified students than other schools, they will be subject to scrutiny with respect to why they are classifying so many students. Special education can be a substantial expense that is at least partly paid at the State level. Schools are not subject to the same scrutiny for their 504 Plans.